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Sky Blue FC 2019 NWSL Preview

Will 2019 be the rebirth of Sky Blue?

Denise Reddy returns to the helm of Sky Blue FC for the 2019 NWSL season.
Tom Salus, Once a Metro

2018 was not a good year for Sky Blue FC. Amid a cacophony of reports of untenable conditions surrounding nearly every off-field aspect of the club, broken nearly simultaneously by Once a Metro and The Equalizer, the team went on a 23-game winless streak before securing their one and only win in the season finale.

The off-field turmoil continued throughout the offseason right through the end of preseason. Players departed the team one by one, the club’s top two draft picks opted to sign in Europe rather than play for the club, Cloud 9 tweeted weekly rants refusing to renew season tickets until real changes and improvements were made at the club, and reports stated that Sky Blue lost the only National Women’s Soccer League-era jersey sponsor it had ever known.

All of which seemingly led to the resignation of Tony Novo, the club’s former president and general manager, earlier this week.

2019 has the possibility to be a much better year for Sky Blue. It remains to be seen how much the changes made this offseason will translate into improvements on the field, but the players have no doubt put last year behind them as they focus on what’s ahead.

Sky Blue FC kicks off the 2019 NWSL season on the road on Saturday against the Washington Spirit. Let’s take a quick peek at what’s old, what’s new, and what just might be in store for Sky Blue in 2019.

The Rundown

How did they finish in 2018?

Dead last. Sky Blue’s season finale win over the Orlando Pride saw the team finish with a 1-17-6 record for 9 points and a last-place finish in the NWSL standings.

What’s new in 2019?

What’s not new?

New GM (Sky Blue Vice President Alyse LaHue, general manager for the Chicago Red Stars from 2012-2016, has stepped in to serve as the club’s interim GM), semi-new training facilities (the club returns to Georgian Court University, where they trained for 2016-2017), mostly new training staff, new jersey sponsor (RWJBarnabas Health, as announced on Thursday), and more than a handful of new players.

Who’s out?

Defenders Amanda Frisbie and Rebekah Stott were linked to European clubs back in November, and attackers Shea Groom and Katie Johnson were trade to Reign FC and the Chicago Red Stars, respectively. Defender Christina Gibbons announced her retirement in January, and just before preseason backup goalkeeper Caroline Casey announced her decision to take time off from the club to pursue her medical degree.

Defender Mandy Freeman is sidelined for what will likely be all of 2019 after sustaining an Achilles injury during preseason.
Tom Salus, Once a Metro

Although still rostered with the club, defender Mandy Freeman and midfielder Madison Tiernan will both miss 2019 after sustaining season-ending injuries during preseason.

Who’s in?

Japanese international midfielder Nahomi (“Naho” or “The Homi”) Kawasumi and three former Spirit players--goalkeeper DiDi Haracic and veteran defenders Caprice Dydasco and Estelle Johnson--all join the club via offseason trades.

The team also signed 2019 draftees Paige Monaghan and Julie James ahead of preseason, and Brazilian-international midfielder Gabi’s signing was announced on Wednesday.

With only 20 of 22 senior roster spots filled (two of which are Freeman and Tiernan) and seemingly zero out of four supplemental roster spots filled, there will likely be more announcements coming in the near future.

New jersey?

Still uncertain. The club has not yet revealed a new jersey nor announced their plans to do so, but that has also been the case in seasons past when the team did get new kits. The team seems to be rockin’ the same secondary kits as last year, but fans may have to wait until the season home opener on April 20 to see if the club has a new primary jersey.

New coach?

Nope. Denise Reddy gets a second chance at producing on-field results for the club. However, without all the distractions in the background, expect all eyes to be on her this year.

How will the World Cup impact the squad?

Sky Blue FC will not be as impacted by the World Cup as, say, the Red Stars or the Portland Thorns FC. The team will be without the services of captain Carli Lloyd, who will no doubt make the U.S. World Cup roster, which will be announced in May.

Starting goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan may miss part of the 2019 while away with Canada at the World Cup.
Jose Argueta, ISI Photos

Canadian-international and federation goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan has been one of four goalkeepers in the mix for Canada ahead of the new cycle, but they can only take three and unlike Lloyd, her spot is anything but certain.

Team newcomer Gabi was a part of Brazil’s World Cup residency training earlier this year, but it remains to be seen if she’ll be in New Jersey or France this summer.

Projected starting XI?

With only 18 healthy players currently named to Sky Blue’s squad, this is the best guess for when all players are with the team. Sky Blue only has three players listed as forwards, but midfielders Lloyd, Kawasumi, 2018 Rookie of the Year Imani Dorsey, and ROTY runner-up Savannah McCaskill have all played up top and fans will likely see them there some this year as well. That flexibility means Reddy can use either a 4-3-3, 4-4-2, or, as seen below, a 4-5-1.

Sheridan; Erica Skroski, Domi Richardson, Johnson, Dydasco; Kawasumi, Raquel Rodriguez, Sarah Killion, Lloyd, McCaskill; Dorsey

Expectations for 2019?

Honestly, expectations aren’t high for Sky Blue this season. The club’s only playoff appearance came in the NWSL’s inaugural year, and it’s been a roller coaster ride ever since. The team seemed to hit rock bottom last year, and not enough has been done in the offseason to restore most people’s faith going into 2019. Many projections floating around the internet already have the club once again finishing at the bottom of the table. Honestly, anything better than last season will be considered a victory for most people.

Questions

What did we learn about the team last season?

Tom Salus, Once a Metro

The truest lesson learned from Sky Blue in 2018 is that the players never give up on the field. Despite suffering a number of last-minute crushing blows last year, the team returned time and time again, finally earning the success that had eluded them all season in their season finale. The players are ultimately the heart and soul of this team, and even though there was a lot of roster turnover this offseason, that hasn’t changed. Fans should expect the same in 2019.

What is the biggest concern this season?

Depth. Sky Blue’s roster was thinned during the offseason, and the club wasn’t always able to replace veteran players with similarly-experienced club newcomers. With two big injuries already upon the team and the World Cup quickly approaching, depth could be a real issue as the season progresses, especially on defense. With one big blow already suffered by Sky Blue’s back line, another one could be catastrophic.

Who is the player fans are going to love to hate?

Easy: Carli Lloyd. Sure, the New Jersey native is an extremely decorated player at the international level, but her reputation preceded her to Sky Blue. Her history of blocking fans on social media, striving to prove the “haters” wrong on the training and playing fields, and the difference in quality of play between the international and club levels makes Lloyd easy for even the die-hard Sky Blue fans to hate.

But this is a World Cup year, and Lloyd thrives under the high pressure of major tournaments. No one needs to be reminded of her hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final, but often fans do need to be reminded that she scored the gold medal-winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. If history repeats itself, there is a very good possibility that Lloyd is “on” this year, and if she and the U.S. have a good World Cup, Sky Blue could reap the rewards of her scoring prowess once she returns to the club.

Who is the player fans will learn to love?

Estelle Johnson and her trademark slide tackle.
Tom Salus, Once a Metro

Estelle Johnson is new to Sky Blue, but the defender’s got a wealth of experience that she’s bringing with her. Among her best talents is her slide tackle, which is a thing of sheer beauty. Seriously, few players have gotten fans and media alike to wax poetic about a slide tackle the way Johnson has. Fans unfamiliar with her defensive efforts for the Spirit are in for a store when Johnson flawlessly pickpockets the opponent of what would have surely been a goal-scoring opportunity time and time again for Sky Blue.

Who is THE player to watch this year?

With Costa Rica missing out on the World Cup, Raquel Rodriguez could see her stock rise as one of the most important players in the NWSL this year. Rodriguez earned Rookie of the Year accolades in 2016, but she spent much of 2017 battling injuries and no Sky Blue player really had a dynamic 2018. However, if she returns to her 2016 form, Rodriguez could be extremely impactful for Sky Blue, especially during the World Cup when other teams’ internationals are gone.

There were offseason rumors around Rodriguez, and she was notably absent from some of Sky Blue’s preseason training sessions and matches. Multiple sources confirmed to Once a Metro that Rodriguez was nearly traded this offseason, but any trade discussions seem to have fallen apart as she returns for her fourth year with the club. Whether she stays with the team for the duration of the season or not remains to be seen, but her calming presence in the midfield and her dangerous attack, if utilized correctly, could be a game changer for Sky Blue in 2019.