There’s something rotten in the state of New Jersey.
Sam Kerr scored a hat trick against Sky Blue FC on July 7, but what should have been a happy victory for a team that needs every point it can get to stay in the playoff race was instead a somber affair as Kerr told media postgame that “I wish things were better here.”
“I’m just going to say the girls deserve better and I’m just going to leave it at that. These girls are great girls. They give everything of themselves for this club and this league and they just deserve better,” Kerr said.
Sky Blue FC suppporters group Cloud 9 followed up with their own statement on July 8.
Sky Blue FC issued their own statement on July 9.
Kerr’s comments, Cloud 9’s statement, and the acknowledgement by Sky Blue have intimated that all is not well behind the scenes at the club. Kerr all but confirmed that conditions at the club were not friendly to players when she said, “I wish I could take every single one of them with me but that’s not the way it is.” So what, exactly, has made things so untenable that Kerr felt she had to speak out, even in vague terms?
I interviewed several sources for this story, two of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. One of them, “August,” is currently in a position close to the team. The second, “Blake” is a former player. I also spoke to former Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Caroline Stanley. Sky Blue FC declined to comment for this article.
A general manager who won’t manage
Several common issues kept coming up in every conversation. Among them were tough travel conditions, inadequate locker room and training facilities, a disorganized front office, near-total disconnect from ownership, and severe housing problems. First and foremost though, every source I spoke to believes current Sky Blue general manager Tony Novo must step down.
“At the end of the day,” said Blake, “I’m going to point all fingers at Tony [Novo] because he’s our GM and he’s supposed to take care of player relations and he doesn’t.”
“He needs to be out,” said August. “Every decision that Tony makes is based on what he thinks is best for the team, not [the players]. He has not once, not one time, asked [the players] what [they] think or what [they] want. Not one single time.”
August said that, as of our interview in mid-July, several players had not been reimbursed for relocation expenses and daily travel to practice – a problem, considering many players commute 45 minutes to an hour each way by car, and some live even farther. Blake said that some commutes are up to an hour and a half. “That is so poor. Your home game should not be an away game,” said Blake.
Stanley said that Novo once texted her and her then-roommates asking if they were moved out of their current accommodations, a beach house with bunk beds, days before the original move date they were given. Novo insisted that they vacate the house that day because the family to whom the house belonged was returning. Stanley and her roommates managed to get then-coach Christy Holly to intercede with Novo on their behalf because they were on their way to training, then had to return and immediately move out afterwards.
Nowhere to call home
Housing was one of the biggest issues that came up in every interview. Several players have had to make multiple moves during the season. Both August and Blake talked about a player who only had her housing arranged until May, at which point Novo was supposed to find her a host family but had told her nothing within one or two days of her move-out date. This player was forced to arrange her own housing, bouncing between houses and hotels until she found a permanent spot in an apartment that only became vacant because Adriana Leon got traded.
Stanley said the club got her housing wrong on day one, as soon as she got off the plane. Her mother had already shipped some of her things to the address she was given as her housing location, but when she arrived she was told that location was no longer where she would live. She did not know where she would stay that night. After moving out of the beach house, she was put with an unsuitable host family and moved out of that location on her own, first to a hotel and then to an apartment she found through a front office staffer. “It ended up not being a good situation,” said Stanley. “They were not understanding about the coming home at midnight from an away trip. They were not understanding of the fact that I could not in fact babysit their daughter.”
Stanley felt that Sky Blue was skimping out on player accommodations while she was there. She said she was told the team had $57,500 to spend on housing and cars according to the league cap for that season, but the rent she added up from players’ houses did not come near that figure, and that the team had, by her recollection, five rental cars that were free thanks to a connection—cars which, according to Blake, players had to fight with the team to get “over and over again.”
August described a current untenable living situation. “[Novo] puts players in families that aren’t good families. One player’s in a host family that, she’s not happy because the family’s very obsessed. She’s miserable there. She doesn’t want to be there. And Tony calls it complaining and isn’t understanding; he just says you’re being a baby about it, pretty much.”
All three sources described a front office in disarray, with players never knowing who does exactly what and having to approach the staff member they had the best personal relationship with in order to get anything done. They described having to constantly remind Novo of things in order to get them done, and Novo getting “upset,” according to August, if they attempted to go through anyone else in the FO.
A home field where no one feels at home
Training facilities are also a sore spot. The first problem is simply knowing which training facility the team will be using on any given day. August said the team has been to at least four different training facilities so far in the 2018 season, with players having to text each other the night before practice to find out where they’re going. At one point during the season, August said the questions about where to go would be “literally every day,” although things seemed to have calmed down somewhat on that front. “It was changing every day, every week, all the time,” they said.
The training facilities themselves are sometimes not up to a professional standard. August said one of their fields was what they would consider a “club level” field with thick, lumpy grass and uneven terrain. When someone tried to show Novo the grass length, he was not responsive to their concerns. “He doesn’t see it. It’s like a joke to him. He thinks [the team is] frigging spoiled,” said August.
August also said that this season players were once asked to bring their own water to practice because the team would not have access to it, but that later the same day the message was rescinded.
Then there’s the facilities at Rutgers. It’s well-known that the Sky Blue FC locker room is not adequate for a professional team’s needs.
“A two-stall, small, really grimy, no-AC locker room with a tiny, tiny, tiny storage closet that they’ve thrown a treatment table in,” was how Stanley described it.
August said players will delay going into the locker room until the very last minute to change in order to avoid its sweltering summer temperatures.
The locker room has no showers; Stanley said Sky Blue offered teams a place to shower, but “you have to drive there.” Away teams will simply go back to their hotels to shower while players must drive home in their sweaty clothes.
Blake said that Rutgers staff aren’t always accommodating either, trying to rush the team through post-game interactions with fans. “The Rutgers people that work there, they want to go home, so they’re like ‘Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ They kind of rush the girls. Especially for a team that’s trying to reconnect, they gotta spend a lot of time with the fans and be involved.”
For away games, Sky Blue’s attempts to cut costs at every corner has a negative impact on some players. Blake said the team would have early checkouts on game days, but they would keep a couple of rooms open where the players could stash their bags and hang out because there would be hours left before they had to go to the field. “But a lot of girls, it totally ruins their routine. What if they want a nap, what if they want their alone time?” Blake pointed out.
Sky Blue currently rents two twelve-seat vans as away game transportation. August said both vans are always packed full with the team trying to cram staff, players, and all their equipment into both vehicles when they go to and from the airport. “Here they’re literally trying to save money and be as cheap as possible. They’re not trying to raise the bar,” August said.
Stanley said that when she was with Sky Blue, goalkeeper coach Jill Loyden did not travel with the team. She and her backup would have to warm each other up and had no guidance. Loyden was also not a full-time GK coach with Sky Blue; she was brought in “a couple times a week,” according to Stanley, and had to travel from over an hour away from training.
Don’t say a word
There was – and to a certain extent, still is – a culture of silence around the team. Stanley said, “I was told once by an older player not to say anything because we don’t have a leg to stand on because we’re not a winning team, and that we need to just be happy to have a team, a league, or they’ll take it away....So I just shut down after that.”
Blake confirmed that players were told not to complain – not necessarily in a threatening way, but certainly in a way that reinforced that players should simply be grateful for what they have. She didn’t feel there was anyone in a position of power who would protect her or fight for the players, including then-coach Christy Holly.
“A lot of people at the end of the day are scared of repercussions,” said August.
Show me the ownership
All of the sources interviewed said they felt the ownership of the team is disconnected from the players themselves.
“I met [an] owner once, and it was the last game,” said Stanley. She said one of the owners came to a game and she was unable to recognize him until someone pointed him out to her.
“They don’t know what’s really going on, I think. I think they just throw the money at [the team] and be like, here you go,” said August.
Blake said she met one of the team’s current owners, Phil Murphy, also currently the governor of New Jersey, once in the multiple seasons she played for the team. “And it was for five minutes,” she said. “[Steven] Temares, never really knew him….He seems more invested in having the correlation between Rutgers and [Players Development Academy] and having his daughter involved than actual care of the players.”
The lack of investment from ownership, disorganization in the FO, and lack of care from management has finally started to boil over with the players. Kerr’s very public statements helped create a tipping point after years of players asking for change.
“If the simple things were taken care of, it wouldn’t have made everything so bad. I don’t think the girls are even upset about the losing now. It’s just the fact that we all call it a semi-pro team,” said Blake, who added that some of them joked about Sky Blue being an “under-25 team.” She said several early retirements were directly linked to Sky Blue’s inept management. “We don’t feel valued at all, and that’s what makes it bad. Honestly, it kills the love of the game because we’re all playing for passion and love, nothing else.”
“People are deciding if they want to be done with this because of how miserable they are,” said Stanley.
Save the ship or time to bail?
The NWSL Players Association has now gotten involved with the situation. When asked to comment, a representative responded by email, “The NWSL [Players Association] has approached and spoken with the league directly about the concerns surrounding Sky Blue FC. The League is fully aware of these issues now and is working closely with the NWSL PA and the club to improve the situation.”
It’s uncertain what improvement might mean. The league may put certain benchmarks in place for Sky Blue to meet in order to be in compliance, although this close to the end of the season, big changes would have to wait for 2019. August was not impressed with Sky Blue’s twitter statement about doing better. “Their statement on twitter was a joke. I really thought it was someone posting it as a joke,” they said.
Another option could be finding a new buyer for the team, whether that means staying close to New York or moving to another market. Both Stanley and Blake seemed to think that would be for the best.
“I think what has to happen is the owners have to step down,” said Blake. “They have to get sold, either to an MLS team, or they just have to let go of their baby and salvage the girls. I would hate to see what happened to Boston happen to Sky Blue.”
“They can’t compete anymore off the field, and they need to be dissolved because they’re not doing the girls justice,” said Stanley.
“We’re not asking for mansions, we’re just asking to know what practice we’re at, where the facility is, and not to get lied to,” said Blake.