How is Sky Blue doing it? Holly has them believing

holly and rampone

by TOM SLATER

When Sky Blue FC fans — and their players — woke up Sunday morning and jumped online and clicked on the  National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) website, they saw their team was in fourth place and a spot in the playoffs.

Which probably caused them great joy. The rest of the women’s soccer world saw the same thing. And they were probably confused.

And for good reason.

Sky Blue FC weren’t supposed to be there. Or anywhere near there. They were picked by a bunch of experts to finish near or at the bottom of the NWSL. All winter, social media folks were scratching their heads trying to figure out what Sky Blue’s management was doing. Or not doing. They spent most of the off-season without a coach after Jim Gabarra went home to Washington last fall. Christy Holly wasn’t named head coach until just before the 2016 College Draft. They traded Nadia Nadim, their most electric player and scoring threat. Players started retiring. Katy Freels and Hayley McCall both called it a career. 2016 team MVP Brittany Cameron decided to stay in Japan. Caitlin Foord said no thanks to coming back to New Jersey.

No one’s laughing now, though. But some Sky Blue folks are sure enjoying it. And they’re not just happy with a playoff spot.

“Everybody gets caught up in the top four. But fourth is a good as second,” said coach Christy Holly. “We want to win first.”

It’s a real longshot but then again, so was the New Jersey side in the thick of the playoff race with July almost over.

So how did they get here? Holly believes it all begins with a state of mind.

“We needed to change the culture here,” he said after a recent training session. “We needed to get players who wanted to be here and to represent the club.”

That’s nice. But they still need to be able to play — and at a high level over the marathon that is the NWSL season. And you have to deal with the OIympic break, which shuts down the season for about a month and forces team to be without their international stars for a couple of weeks either side of the break.

So how are they doing it?

Let’s take a look at three factors:

Christie Rampone: The newly turned 41-year-old may have said goodbye to her international career but she is surely enjoying playing for her club. She’s surrounded by young players — goalkeeper Caroline Casey, defenders Kristin Grubka, Erin Simon and Erica Skroski, and midfielders Sarah Killion and Raquel Rodriguez. All are in their early 20s. Rampone has played every minute of every for Sky Blue this season — the only player to even start every game. And she’s enjoying her role as a teacher and leader.

“No one expected this to happen,” said Rampone. “Nobody was putting us up there (in the top four spots). It’s always good to prove everyone wrong and to do it on the field. And we have a team with no egos. Everybody appreciates the work everyone puts in every day. It allows us to be tighter on the field. And that’s the key. People look on a paper on how good a team is but it’s how we function on the field. And we have a good vibe.”

A great rookie class: Whether it goes down as the best of all time is questionable but there’s no doubt that Sky Blue is benefiting from their solid if unspectacular play. Skroski, the rookie from Rutgers, started out next to Rampone in the middle but has played well as an outside back. Looking comfortable making runs into the attack. Behind her is Casey, who was the starter when the season began, was waived for a few weeks, and now has three straight victories and a pair of shutouts. Rodriguez was the centerpiece draft choice and has been relatively quiet but deceptively effective, teaming with Killion to form a very poised center midfield duo. And then there’s Galton. No one knew what she was going to do but she’s been the ignition to the season. Her speed and technical ability allows her to get behind defenders and turn the entire defense around. She creates confusion and that leads to goals. She’s the team’s leading scorer with 3 goals and 3 assists, including the game-winner over Washington.

Christy Holly: Holly believed when nobody else did. When Sky Blue players like Freels, McCall, Nadim and Cameron left, he stayed with the plan. Whatever that was. “We had a game plan from the get go,” Holly said. “There’s a lot of things we wanted to change. The perception of who are and what we are as individuals, as a team as an organization. We wanted to bring on players that wanted to be here, that wanted to represent New Jersey and Sky Blue.”

The big Irishman has said it so often it’s become boilerplate. But he’s been a pretty good judge of talent. He brought in Erin Simon, who has turned out to be a pretty good left side defender. He brought in Kelly Conheeney, who scored the game-winner against Seattle on opening night. He talked Tasha Kai into coming back to Sky Blue after five years away.

And he has been always positive no matter how it’s looked. “When you face adversity, that’s when your values come out and you see what you’re made of,” he said. “We talk about having humility. And humility is not thinking less about yourself. It’s about thinking more about everyone else. So far, it’s been fantastic. You have a player like Erin Simon who never played on the left side before in her life and now she’s playing left back in the NWSL.”

There’s still plenty of soccer left in the NWSL season. And the congestion in the NWSL standing doesn’t make any team a lock to make the playoffs when the smoke clear. But then again, there’s no reason to count Sky Blue out, either. Just ask Christy Holly. Because he has made believers of his team. And the naysayers will have to fall in line sooner or later.