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A look at Sky Blue’s twenty-two

Posted on 04 April 2010 by lbarker

The second WPS season is just a week away. With rosters officially announced on April 1, it might seem we would have some of idea of who looks good, who looks great, and who will be left on the outside looking in come September. Right? Or maybe not. There’s probably as much a chance of making an accurate guess about who will be lifting the trophy this fall as there is getting the right number in one of those ‘guess how many jellybeans are in this jar’ contests – unless you’re some ‘Numb3rs’-esque math-genius who can come up with a formula to count said jelly beans, which I admittedly, am not (plus, I hate jellybeans).

The January demise of the reigning regular season champion (and playoff runner-up) Los Angeles Sol – and the dispersal draft that followed – meant that an already talent-saturated nine team league became a talent-overflowing-from-everywhere eight team league.

Heather O'Reilly, here in last week's USWNT win over Mexico, should have plenty to cheer about in WPS this season as well ©Julie Harper/ASN

There’s one team though that has something none of the other seven WPS teams have (no Atlanta, I’m not talking about you and that fancy new women’s-soccer-specific stadium, although that’s pretty darn neat). I’m talking about New Jersey’s own Sky Blue FC. What do the ol’ Blue and Orange have, you ask? Oooh, I know! The most coaches ever by a WPS team? Well, yes, but no. Is it the most tattooed player in WPS? How about the leagues most daring goalkeeper? Wait, is it a captain-player-coach-central defender who led her team to the championship while secretly pregnant? Yes, yes, and yes. But also no. The thing Sky Blue FC’s got that no other WPS team does, it’s that little star above the team’s crest (also, a shiny trophy and the only pro soccer championship my beloved home state has ever seen). To the Sky Blue faithful that star is about the ultimate conclusion to the ultimate cinderella story, the icing on top of a cake baked over six months in an oven that didn’t always seem to be heating just right. To the rest of the teams in WPS (and their fans), the addition of that star on the front of the jerseys also means the addition of a giant target on the back.

But the defending champs seem ready to, well, defend. Through five preseason games Sky Blue is unbeaten. The team played three preseason games in Florida, outscoring opponents 14-0 during that stretch, including a 2-0 victory over the only WPS side SBFC faced in exhibition, the Boston Breakers, and 5-0 and 7-0 victories over Florida State University and University of Florida respectively. The team then returned to NJ and topped two more college sides, beating Rutgers 3-0 and UConn 5-0. Along with a perfect 5-0 preseason record, Sky Blue heads to the regular season outscoring opponents 22-0. Even considering that four of the five opponents faced in exhibition were college teams, 22 goals in five games can’t be overlooked from a team that managed only 19 goals in 20 regular season games during the inaugural campaign.

So what will Sky Blue FC look like on April 11 when they take the field for the first time?

GOALKEEPER:
Returning between the posts will be UNC alum and one-time US International Jenni Branam and English International Karen Bardsley. The duo of California natives will become a trio of California natives as Ashley Thompson joins the squad as one of four developmental players. Branam returns from a 2009 season where she cemented her reputation as the league’s most daring ‘keeper. Not afraid to come (way, way, way) off her line to make saves and a part of some big time collisions (Abby Wambach and Brittany Bock to name just two), Branam managed a 1.09 goals against average during 2009, including 6 clean sheets in 18 appearances. She also started and played the full 90 in all three playoff games, and allowed just one goal in that stretch, despite an injury. Karen Bardsley made just four appearances for Sky Blue in 2009, and allowed only 2 goals. She’s been getting some time in net for the English National Team lately, playing 90 minutes in a recent 3-0 win in a World Cup Qualifier against Austria. Ashley Thompson comes to Sky Blue by way of UCLA and the Hudson Valley Quickstrike Lady Blues. Branam will likely start as the number one ‘keeper, with Bardsley a solid backup. Thompson could see some time as Branam’s backup as well, as international call-ups for World Cup Qualifiers could occasionally send Bardsley across the pond.

DEFENSE:

There’s that old saying “defense wins championships” and while Sky Blue’s run to the trophy was certainly a team effort, the back line can’t be overlooked. After all, it was a solid back four that frustrated Marta and stifled the Sol’s attack in the championship game. Returning for year two are Anita Asante, Keeley Dowling, Christie Rampone and Meghan Schnur. English International Asante is still recovering from an ACL injury and US National Team captain (and former SBFC player-coach) Rampone recently gave birth to her second daughter. Both will miss the beginning of the season. Schnur has been getting some deserved attention from Pia Sundhage on the national team, earning her first three caps at the mysterious we-only-know-it-happened-because-Match Tracker-says-so tournament known as the Algarve Cup and adding two more appearances in the ‘fire and ice’ Mexico friendlies. The back line will be bolstered by the additions of SBFC’s first round pick Brittany Taylor, who also earned her first international cap in the ‘ice’ half of the Mexico friendlies; Dutch National Team captain and owner of quite the interesting hairdo, Daphne Koster and Ole Miss alum Danielle Johnson, on the squad as a developmental player.

MIDFIELD:

Should Pauliina Miettinen decide to go with a thematic midfield, there’s the option for the ‘Jersey Line’ featuring returning Sky Blue-rs Heather O’Reilly and Yael Averbuch and new addition Carli Lloyd, all natives of the Garden State. Then there’s the ‘Are You Sure This Isn’t the National Team?’ option, with O’Reilly, Lloyd, Averbuch and Kacey White, all players with appearances for the US National Team. Or perhaps a little college flair is in order? Using a few of the estimated 4,956 UNC alumni on the roster (there are in fact 6 former Tar Heels on SBFC) the ‘Tar Heel Blue Becomes Sky Blue’ is the way to go, a lineup featuring O’Reilly, Averbuch, White and eventually Nikki Washington. O’Reilly has looked like her usual hard-working self in recent national team appearances. Lloyd is hoping to put a less than impressive year in Chicago behind her, and a return to her home state, and to Yurcak Field, where she played collegiately for Rutgers may do the trick. She scored her first international goal in more than a year at the Algarve Cup. Averbuch is quickly establishing herself as one of the best playmaking mids in the game. There’s also Brazilian International Rosana, who struggled early in 2009 before finding her touch later in the season. Kiersten Dallstream, who, like Washington, was originally drafted by LA and picked up by Sky Blue in the dispersal draft is a versatile player who can score goals and has also played at outside back. Washington is still rehabbing a knee injury and isn’t listed on Sky Blue’s 22 player roster, but she’ll be someone who can make an impact once she gets healthy. Angela Salem also joins the club as a developmental player.

FORWARD:

One of the main concerns in 2009 was the lack of scoring. Sky Blue averaged less than a goal a game in the inaugural year, but the 2010 edition of the team looks ready to change that. Newcomer Katie Schoepfer will fight for a spot up top with two more newbies, Finnish International Laura Kalmari and Swedish International Jessica Landstrom as well as last year’s leading scorer and US International, Natasha Kai. Kai seems to be back to form after struggling through much of 2009 with injuries to her shoulders. She’s had surgery on both and promised “The fans should expect a lot more than what they saw last year…more goals and more celebrations. The old Tash is back. The party is ‘bout to start.” Through five preseason games she’s kept that promise, scoring more goals than she did the entire 2009 season. Rosana, Lloyd, White, Kalmari, Dallstream and Schoepfer have also found the back of the net in the exhibition games. Meagan Snell comes on board as a developmental player.

In the long run though, preseason is still preseason. It doesn’t matter if the team scores 5,000 goals against college teams if they can’t convert in games where actual points are at stake. In 2009 Sky Blue beat the Washington Freedom 1-0 in a preseason game. And then went on to be unable to solve the apparent puzzle that was Abby Wambach and Co. during the regular season, finishing with an 0-2-1 record against those representing the capital city, including a wild 4-4 tie in a game Sky Blue led 3-1, and then 4-3, before a stoppage time goal by the Freedom’s Cat Whitehill led to the draw. It wasn’t until the first round of the playoffs, in August, some six months after that preseason game, that Sky Blue managed to put the pieces in the right places and get a result against the Freedom. So what’s changed? Well, the team enters the 2010 with the momentum of last year’s championship run. The 22 preseason goals should also help boost the confidence of a team that’s struggled to score. There’s also the coach factor, with Pauliina Miettinen coming on for 2010, the fourth person to hold the job in half as many seasons.* But the former Finnish player seems to be a good fit, with comments from Miettinen, players, and management all pointing in a positive direction.
*My freshman team in high school went through some five or six coaches – we lost count – before finding one that stuck around, and our season was only three months long, so, you know…

There are two big problems for Pauliina Miettinen and Sky Blue, but as far as problems go, they’re some of the best to have. One is that with the 2011 World Cup just a year away, Sky Blue could be hit hard by international call-ups. Fifteen of the 22 players on the roster have experience at the senior National Team level, for six different countries. WPS has worked with US Soccer to try and limit the conflict, and CONCACAF qualifiers aren’t likely to start until after the WPS season ends, but UEFA and CONMEBOL qualifiers, camps and friendlies are a question. This is where the depth factor could play a huge role. And it’s the depth that leads to the second problem. Sky Blue’s roster is so deep just about everywhere that a lot of talent may not equal a lot of time on the pitch. Taylor is a promising young midfielder, Koster an established international, and Dowling and Schnur have both proven themselves as integral parts of Sky Blue’s back four, but once Rampone and Asante are ready to play, someone (someones?) will be left out of the starting lineup. There’s the same situation at midfield and forward, with more big-time talent than spots on the field. But too much depth? Can you have too much depth? Or does the overflow of talent mean that the product on the field is that much better, with players constantly trying to up their game and earn a spot in the starting XI? If Sky Blue’s 22 can find a balance between that battle and the ‘play for the badge on the front, not the name on the back’ mentality that was the key to overcoming all of 2009’s adversity, another trophy is far from impossible.

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  1. Tweets that mention A look at Sky Blue’s twenty-two | Women's Professional Soccer -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by wpsASN, Lauren Barker. Lauren Barker said: A new @skybluefc story at American Soccer News 'A Look at Sky Blue's Twenty-Two" http://bit.ly/cLpL5I #WPS #SBFC […]

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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by wpsASN, Sky Blue FC, Robert Penner, Michael Kajdas, Lauren Barker and others. Lauren Barker said: A new @skybluefc story at American Soccer News 'A Look at Sky Blue's Twenty-Two" http://bit.ly/cLpL5I #WPS #SBFC […]

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