“… each of the players brought in today can start a game, and can certainly come off the bench [in the] early weeks of the season and impact the game in a positive manner.” — Sky Blue FC head coach Christy Holly
[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ky Blue FC fans could be forgiven for some confusion as they awoke to the news on the Friday morning of the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft that Nadia Nadim had been traded to the Portland Thorns FC in a deal for, primarily, a draft pick.
That the team would deprive itself of the goal-scoring prowess of Nadim up top, in what could be legend Christie Rampone’s final year, speaks to a key change in Sky Blue’s approach.
The rebuild is here. And judging by the haul the team came away with at the draft, it could mean the franchise’s best days are coming soon.
Bolstering the Attack
“There’s definitely been a few changes,” Sky Blue FC head coach Christy Holly, one of those changes himself after Jim Gabarra left for the Washington Spirit, said as several of his new players posed for photographs at the Baltimore Convention Center during the draft.
“And this is something that we’ve been looking at since toward the end of last season. We knew the changes we needed. We had an extremely strong starting eleven. We struggled when players were injured or players were away on national team duty. This is something — each of the players brought in today can start a game, and can certainly come off the bench [in the] early weeks of the season and impact the game in a positive manner. It’s really important to me that we have that bounce across the team.”
The group of four new Sky Blue players really begins with Raquel Rodriguez, the midfielder from Penn State who dominated College Cup and captured the 2015 MAC Hermann Trophy. The consensus is that few players come in as ready to contribute as Rodriguez, providing a traffic cop for the Sky Blue attack.
It is just as notable, when evaluating Sky Blue’s difficulty breaking into the sports marketplace (with attendance well shy of 2,000 per game, the lowest in the NWSL) that Rodriguez is extremely well-spoken, cognizant of the need to connect with fans, and eager to get started replicating the following she’s built in Costa Rica in New Jersey.
“The media at home — this is the first time I’ve ever felt so announced in Costa Rica,” Rodriguez said shortly after getting picked. “They’re very aware. And I can see that change. And in social media more than actual news, people aren’t waiting on the news, they’re already aware of what happened here. But like you said, it has to increase, hopefully, to the point it’s like the men’s coverage. But I’m also aware it takes time.”
“My goal is to be a role model that my generation did not have. And I hope that this grows the game. And I just want to be that role model, and take that responsibility.”
Picking up the attacking slack following Nadim’s departure will be Sky Blue’s second pick, and the 13th overall pick in the draft, Leah Galton of Hofstra by way of Harrogate, England.
“Leah’s a very talented player,” Holly said of Galton. “I wasn’t sure how many teams had her on their radar. But she brings the balance with her left foot. She’s more than capable of scoring goals. She’s got that burst of speed which is very beneficial for us on the left wing. She can play as an 11, she can play as a 9. She didn’t develop her game in America, her early years were in England. So she comes with a different level of savviness within the game, and it makes her unique.”
Added Defensive Depth
While Rodriguez and Galton figure to play key roles in the Sky Blue attack this season, the team took precautions with the back line and in goal as well. And few will know the terrain at Yurcak Field better than the team’s third pick and the 23rd overall selection, Erica Skroski, a central defender who paired with fellow 2016 NWSL draftee Brianne Reed (who went 18th to FC Kansas City) to lead Rutgers to its first College Cup berth.
The Galloway, New Jersey native is Jersey through and through, having spent many evenings watching Sky Blue through her college days, and now will get to play on the same field she experienced her greatest collegiate triumphs, next to the ultimate prototype of a Jersey defender in Rampone.
“It’s amazing,” Skroski said, shortly after she was selected. “Everything I could’ve hoped for in my next step as a soccer player. To play at Rutgers for four years after growing up in New Jersey, to play professionally where Rutgers plays its soccer games means so much to me.”
“Absolutely. When we’re out at the store, people don’t just know about me, about Rutgers and this season — but they know about the professional league. Whether that’s guys, that’s girls, they know about it — the whole country knows about it, and everybody is benefitting.”
Sky Blue’s final pick lasted until 29th overall, but the team made a trade to get her — dealing picks 33 and 36 to Chicago for the 29th slot and taking William & Mary goalkeeper Caroline Casey. The intellectually driven Casey wasn’t even sure she wanted to play professional soccer a year ago, but a summer with the Washington Spirit Reserves team and a senior campaign that included an All-America selection led her to continue her professional pursuit.
“I’d been wrestling with the idea of what to do. I was pre-med in college, and eventually I’ll pursue that path,” Casey said after the pick, her parents nearby waiting to take her out to celebrate.”
“But with the help of my coaches, teammates, and other individuals along the way really convinced me to pursue this path. So many opportunities it provides, so I absolutely wanted to jump at the chance. I was training with the Washington Spirit Reserve team, and I just fell in love with the environment, and just felt like I was 13 years old again — when you just love soccer so much, and there’s no pressure, any of that. So in a sense, I fell in love with the game all over again. So I think, from that point forward, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t all should make for a fascinating summer of novelty and growth in Piscataway. And while Holly was realistic about the difficulties in getting a young team to play at an elite level so quickly, he didn’t sound ready to punt the season. Not with his optimism about Rampone, who he’d spoken to the day before the draft, and said “what I expect from Christie is to play every game, and lead the team.” And not with so much young talent added to the roster in a single day.
“The players we brought in were extremely successful,” Holly said. “You have a Hermann winner, you have a first team All-American, you have a player who went to the Final Four. So we’re extremely fortunate. A lot of what they bring in is the humility, the hard-working attitude. And that’s a lot of it. There’s no question about their ability. The application of that, the transition from the college game will be that much smoother.”
All images courtesy of Cynthia Hobgood.