Despite postponement as the coronavirus pandemic overtakes the nation, the National Women’s Soccer League’s (NWSL) eighth annual season will hopefully kick off in the near future, and it’s shaping up to be a big year for the ever-growing league. Though it features some of the brightest young stars of the world champion U.S. national team, and engaging teams such as back-to-back defending champions North Carolina Courage, surprisingly one of the most talked about teams heading into the new season is a consistent bottom finisher, Sky Blue FC.
This in no small part has been due to the work of general manager Alyse LaHue. LaHue, who had previously spent four years in the same role with the Chicago Red Stars, was named interim Sky Blue general manager in April of the 2019 season. By the time she had been officially appointed in September of the same year, she was already well at work bolstering the club’s brand both on and off the field.
One of the biggest moves made by LaHue since taking over the team has been relocating the team’s home games. The move, coming into effect for what would have been Sky Blue’s home opener against the Seattle Reign, brings the club from Yurcak Field at Rutgers University’s Piscataway campus to Red Bull Arena in Harrison. The benefits are notable for both the players, due to RBA’s higher quality field and improved locker rooms, and the administration, who are now able to sell 20,000 more tickets.
But the move is positive for the fans as well. The more convenient location of the new stadium brings the team from a 47 minute drive from New York City to a short train ride away. This has inspired a dramatic rise in new support from around the New York/New Jersey metro area. Cloud 9, the official Sky Blue supporters group, spokesperson Jennifer Muller noted that even before the first kick off of the season, the uptick in fans is noticeable.
“We’re almost at the membership level we were at last season,” said Muller. “And we’ve only had memberships on sale for two weeks. So we’re way ahead of where we usually are, and are seeing a lot of new members, especially in New York and North Jersey.”
The new access to a New York City fanbase has been pivotal in the club’s rise in recent months. Meg Linehan, the Athletic’s chief NWSL writer, said the new stadium could tap into New York, a source of fandom never seen in the club’s 11 year history.
“We’ve already seen the team start to think about New York City as part of its market. They’ve added it to graphics. They’ve done adult camps now in Brooklyn.”
These “fantasy camps,” which give fans an opportunity to be coached by and meet players, have helped to further build the connection between one of the league’s longest standing clubs and it’s recently growing fanbase, bringing about an atmosphere of intimacy between supporters and team not previously seen from Sky Blue.
LaHue spoke of the desire to bring fans closer to the management and club, stating “Community is very big for me and for our front office. So everything that we’ve done over the last year was really to include the fans more in the process.”
The new fans and buildings mark a stark contrast to where the club stood just years before- as late as 2018 the team was languishing not just at the bottom of the standings, but in poor living conditions as well. Ownership (including New Jersey governor Phil Murphy) instituted cost-cutting measures and did not offer housing to all players. There were no cleaning or bathing facilities at the team’s training and playing ground and nearly all the team’s staff were signed on as part-time workers. As detailed by Once A Metro, this austerity program was compounded by a toxic lack of communication between ownership, management, and players that eroded fan support for the struggling club.
Cloud 9 and other fans called for change and accountability, but any signs of progress were slow to emerge. One former player summed up the pervasive struggles to Deadspin late in the 2018 season: “We’re dealing with people who are underpaid and just not good at their job. There’s no one wrongdoing person; it’s just [all] not good enough.”
But under the leadership installed since the rock bottom of that period including LaHue, club chair Tammy Murphy, and head coach Freya Coombe, Sky Blue has gone to great lengths to change the atmosphere and have been giving freedom to make bold moves. Now with access to new facilities and support, the team begins to at last emerge as a big city flagship of the developing league it’s a part of.
The NWSL itself has taken more than a few bumps and criticism in its long road to the emerging league it is today, and still players continue to battle for better pay and services such as maternity benefits for pregnant athletes. The league as a whole still has no policy in providing care and supervision for children when their mothers are at training or games.
But the club and league are hoping a rising tide will lift all boats, with average attendance up 21% last season following the World Cup triumph. Any growth in the league’s media profile would require one of its inaugural clubs to help reel in the attention of the nation’s biggest market.
LaHue has set out to build a team that is as competitive on the pitch as it’s attendance numbers could be off of it (with the Portland Thorns setting the pace at 20,000 fans viewing the average game at Providence Park.) The general manager and head coach Freya Coombe have quickly assembled a team prepared to surpass prior squads.
The new-look Sky Blue will be filled with new faces. The attack will be supplemented by two youthful entries to the team- 24-year-old Margaret “Midge” Purce and 21-year-old winger Mallory Pugh, the latter having 63 caps for the USWNT. Sky Blue also acquired former North Carolina Courage midfielder McCall Zerboni, who is sure to bring another verteran presence.
The team made sure to keep hold of its stalwarts from prior campaigns as well, notably keeping on last year’s top goalscorer and USWNT legend Carli Lloyd, Canadian international Kailen Sheridan in net, and club captain Sarah Killion in the midfield.
Said LaHue: “If you’re going to go play at Red Bull arena, I think you need some stars and you need some excitement as a club. So we created a pretty robust plan in looking at potential player targets for us to bring on board”
LaHue is understandably enthusiastic about the group she’s assembled- perhaps the first Sky Blue team in years that’s fully expected to make headlines for being at the top, rather than the bottom, of the standings once the season gets underway.
“I’m really pleased to say that we executed that plan exactly how we had hoped. We’re absolutely thrilled with the roster that we’ve put together”