UPDATED with Cloud 9 response to outside influence.
Cloud 9 is the official supporters group of Sky Blue FC. Cloud 9 is also in open revolt against the leadership at their own club.
You might have seen some of their tweets in the offseason, calling for better conditions for the players and the dismissal of current club president and general manager Tony Novo.
Really the biggest question is why is Tony Novo still employed as the General Manager of Sky Blue FC when so many things have gone wrong under his watch?#FreeSkyBlue— Cloud 9 (@Cloud9SBFC) November 12, 2018
Just to refresh your memory, Cloud 9 is protesting the treatment of players as written about here at Once A Metro and at Equalizer Soccer, revealing subpar living and playing conditions and a disorganized front office that had trouble handling player needs like travel reimbursement and health care paperwork. Now that we’re well into the NWSL offseason, Cloud 9 has made sure to put out regular tweets reiterating their deep dissatisfaction with Sky Blue’s leadership, hoping to keep the issue alive in the minds of NWSL fans.
Since Sky Blue’s original statement in July responding to the original reports, and an end-season interview with Howard Megdal at The Athletic, where Novo called the player complaints “noise,” Sky Blue hasn’t officially addressed the issue, nor have they responded to Cloud 9’s statements on social media, externally or internally.
Jen Muller, a Cloud 9 member in a leadership position, said in a call she had not spoken officially with Novo since the club made their public statement. “A day after [the statement] I spoke with Tony at length, but that was really the last time we spoke,” she said. “He offered like, did we need another meeting with Cloud 9? And I declined and basically told him he needs to talk to his players, because this isn’t about us.”
Muller said that learning about the conditions for players was “a gut punch.” She said that she had been aware that some situations weren’t ideal but didn’t know the true extent of it, and that it was “heartbreaking.”
Danny Kane is a Cloud 9 member and season ticket holder since 2016. “The past couple months we’ve kind of just gotten progressively angrier,” he said in a call. He described the general feeling amongst Cloud 9 towards their parent club as “negative,” and negative in particular about Novo. Kane and Muller said there was a town-hall style meeting between Cloud 9 and Novo at the beginning of the 2018 season, and both of them said they felt misled by what Novo told them at that meeting, particularly about facilities.
“The one [issue] that I think that made us angry was when we asked specifically about the facilities for the players, [Novo] said that we were up to NWSL standards,” said Kane. “Now I don’t know if that’s a lie or not, it might be completely true, but we weren’t asking about standards, we were asking if our players were being treated like world class professionals.”
Muller said that in that town hall Novo “really harped on, ‘we’re meeting the minimum requirements and what have you’, but I don’t think anyone knows what those minimum requirements are.”
Novo responded to a request for comment from Sky Blue FC and said his statements were taken out of context. He said the team started their preseason training at Sportika in Manalapan, New Jersey, but the planned facility they were to use after Sportika was delayed, and so they went to Rutgers for a couple of months, and then had to go to a local soccer park in Jackson.
“And that’s where the proverbial shit hit the fan,” said Novo. “That’s when all this negativity started. Tony promised us this, Tony promised us that - from Cloud 9, not from our players, not from our ownership, not from our staff. But they said hey, you said back in January. So the truth of the matter was yes, I did say back in January that we were working with this group, they were building this complex, it’s 200 acres, it’s called Trophy Park, hopefully it will be built someday, hopefully in the very, very near future.”
Trophy Park is a planned sports complex in Jackson, New Jersey. It is approximately 50 minutes away from Piscataway and isn’t scheduled to open until early 2020. Novo said he, head coach Denise Reddy, and Sky Blue VP of communications John Archibald met with the individual building Trophy Park the day after the 2018 college draft in hopes of being able to move there for the 2018 season for access to a training facility with lockers and showers. He said that there have been delays with Trophy Park’s planning board approvals, but that his hope is that Sky Blue can begin using their facilities in 2020. For 2019, he said he doesn’t see Sky Blue playing anywhere other than Yurcak Field at Rutgers.
Novo said that he felt hurt by Cloud 9’s calls specifically to dismiss him from the organization. “Bottom line is, when I first came here five years ago, I helped grow Cloud 9,” he said. “Long story short, I invited them to the beer garden, have a beer, and said what can I do to help you grow. So little by little we helped grow Cloud 9 from two , three, four, five people to a much larger base.”
Novo added that he thought Cloud 9 were “phenomenal supporters” and called them the best supporters group in the league. When asked what he thought their primary grievance against him was, he cited a list of player moves, including Christie Rampone stepping down and the trades of Sam Kerr and Kelley O’Hara, as being unpopular, as well as “outside influence from people from other clubs.”
“I’m going to say one other club who no longer exists,” Novo elaborated on that outside influence, “who had a good relationship with our prior head coach - that individual is the one that has stirred up most of the negativity against me personally.”
Novo would not name this individual, and when asked if he was saying that an individual who had ties to Christy Holly and who was dissatisfied with the club after Holly’s and Rampone’s departures from the club had now decided to influence Cloud 9 to react negatively towards him, he confirmed that that was what he meant was driving part of Cloud 9’s complaints.
Also, there is NO ONE influencing us from the outside. We are grown-ass adults who are capable of coming to our own conclusions that Tony Novo needs to be fired. It's really not that difficult.— Cloud 9 (@Cloud9SBFC) November 29, 2018
“Most of the grievances are against the club,” he said, “and us not having good enough facilities, not having good enough housing, good enough coaching. Some of them has been against me as the president and general manager. So I’m going to say where there’s a handful of individuals that have said things against me and those individuals said things against our ownership, but the majority of it has to do with us as a whole, our organization as a whole.”
That doesn’t quite match what Cloud 9 members told me. Kane said he wouldn’t renew his season tickets with Novo still as general manager, and that he knew approximately 15-20 other season tickets holders who also do not want to renew until Novo is gone. Muller said that Novo’s dismissal was the bare minimum required of Sky Blue for her to renew her season tickets, though she roughly estimated it was a dozen-plus Cloud 9 members who agreed with her. A third Cloud 9 member, Kat Morales-Tong, also said she would not renew her season tickets while Novo was still GM.
All three said it was a general collective agreement to speak out against Novo and team ownership and express their anger about the players’ conditions - no one mentioned player trades or Holly’s departure among their list of grievances. “I was pretty pissed,” said Morales-Tong of learning about those player conditions. “We can only say so much to the staff. We can only say so much in the emails. It was time that it got out there. We needed everyone to know.”
“If we thought [ownership] were committed to making things better, I think we wouldn’t be going on social media all the time,” said Kane, “But so far the only tangible thing we’ve seen is a trailer with some showers in it that should be an embarrassment. So when we realized that ownership wasn’t making things better, we certainly want to be putting some pressure on them and also putting pressure on U.S. Soccer, on NWSL to do something about this.”
“To be clear, it’s directed at management and ownership,” said Muller. “There are good people in Sky Blue front office that are trying to do good.”
Novo was insistent in our interview that even though Rutgers, according to him, “does not meet the standards that we need for a professional environment,” the players’ living situation was never as bad as it was described in previous articles, and that Sky Blue has spent the maximum team housing allowance for the past four years. He listed off player accommodations, including a beach house - described by him as “very nice” and by former Sky Blue goalkeeper Caroline Stanley as “tiny” with bunk beds to fit five players - apartments, and an apartment complex. He also emphasized that the team used host families with “multi-million dollar houses” and fewer host families every year as they put more players into housing.
I asked him about allegations of improper host families, regardless of the cost of the house. “That was never a host family,” said Novo. “That was [in 2015] and it was a landlord who was secured by our former head coach Christy Holly. So we were basically paying rent to this individual and the individual decided that he had access to the house while he was renting to us. So the truth of the matter was, this was our former head coach who’s no longer with us. So I’m not going to blame him on that, but that was the arrangement that he took care of, okay? And that was one of the reasons why he was let go.”
This runs counter to Stanley’s allegation she was put with a host family that was, in her words, “not a good situation,” as well as a source close to the team who said there was a host family this past 2018 season that made a player miserable “because the family’s very obsessed.”
Muller said that Novo also spoke to her about the supposedly good housing conditions for players, in the gap between Sam Kerr’s original comments about wishing things were better at Sky Blue and the articles with player allegations coming out. “He was adamant to let me know and he asked me to make sure everybody knows that the housing has improved. He specifically asked me to make sure everyone knows that the housing has improved. That they’re in these apartments, that one big house is this great house,” she said.
Muller said her ultimate goal “first and foremost, is the dismissal or the resignation of Tony Novo.” She added, “I’m not saying it’s going to change things overnight. He’s not the only party that’s responsible. But he is the general manager and these things happened under his watch and I don’t think he has ever really taken responsibility.”
“After all that I’ve done for this club, all that I’ve done for Cloud 9, I’m not sure where that’s coming from,” Novo responded when asked how he felt that Cloud 9 members were specifically calling for his resignation before they would renew season tickets. “Because I’m not the owner. I’m not the one that writes the check. But I am the one that’s been going to bat for these players and going to bat for Cloud 9 for the last five years.”
Everyone I spoke to in Cloud 9 is still trying to decide what they’ll do if Novo doesn’t resign and nothing changes for the 2019 season. Kane thinks perhaps some people will choose not to enter the stadium, supporting the players from afar without giving Sky Blue any money. Muller mentioned the tentative possibility of a boycott, although she also cited showing up but not entering the stadium as another option. They may have to come to a concrete decision on the matter since Novo seemingly has no plans of resigning.
“My plan is not to walk away from this game,” he said. “I have a lot of fans that reach out to me in support of what I’m doing. I have a lot of sponsors that have reached out to me in support of what I’m doing, saying we know who the real Tony Novo is, we appreciate what you’ve done for the game, for these players, and I’ve also spoken to our players. I do an exit interview with all our players at the end of the year and some of the questions I ask are about coaching, staffing, ownership, conditions, training, all of that. And one of them is about me. And I’ve gotten positive responses. They understand that some of these scenarios are not totally under my control. I mean yes, I’m the president and general manager, but again I’m not the one that writes the check.”
“[Novo’s] gotta realize that he’s in over his head and he’s gotta go,” said Muller. “To ownership, they need to decide whether this team is a tax write-off for them and a novelty, or if they want to be among the elite in this league.”
“The league has come a long way since Sky Blue started,” said Kane. “At this point what was good enough is no longer anywhere near good enough, and it probably shouldn’t have been good enough to begin with. So if you’re not ready to provide players with the resources they deserve, it’s time for you to move on and let an owner that is willing and able to spend the money to make this a world class organization do it.”
At the end of my conversation with Novo, he had a last request. “I’ve been open to all of the reporters, everyone who’s asked questions. So I’m hopeful that you’re going to write something that just doesn’t put me underwater,” he said. “You’re welcome to. That’s part of what your job is. I’m hopeful that you’re going to say, hey this guy really cares about what he’s doing, this guy really cares about Sky Blue FC, is working with the ownership group, is working with the players, is working with the staff that we have, is working with the facilities that we have to try to make things better. That’s all I can ask. So if you can present that, that would be great.”