In Camp, Sky Blue Looks Strong

holly and rampone

by TOM SLATER

Last March, Sky Blue’s new coach, Christy Holly, was using the National Women’s Soccer League preseason to simply find pieces that fit together to compete for a playoff spot.

A year later, Holly’s aspirations for his squad are higher.

“The level of play we’re seeing is about 15 to 20 percent higher than last year,” Holly said after a workout at the Atlantic Club in Manasquan, N.J., on Thursday. “Players came in hungry and in very sharp condition.  This year we have a lot more depth and there is a real competition for starting jobs. The level of competition has been very, very fierce.”

Holly is probably the NWSL’s ultimate optimist. But his assessment seems accurate. Even March’s challenging weather hasn’t prevented Sky Blue hopefuls from progressing toward their NWSL opener in fewer than three weeks.

“We scrimmaged a U18 boys team — a real good team — after just four full days of training,” Holly said. “And I was impressed on how we came out and played. They were physically superior to us as you might imagine but the ball possession and understanding of the team was second to none.”

The team has a foundation built upon back-to-back drafts that brought 10 players to Sky Blue. The 2017 draft brought in six players — most notably Canada’s national team goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, and a pair of defenders from NCAA champion Southern California, Kayla Mills and Miranda Freeman.

That’s on top of the 2016 selections, which brought in four impact players — defender Erica Skroski, goalkeeper Caroline Casey, striker Leah Galton and midfielder Raquel Rodriguez (known as Rocky) from the 2015 NCAA champion Penn State team.

This group will team with veterans Christie Rampone, entering her final professional season; U.S. international Kelley O’Hara; the steady Sarah Killion; and Australia international Sam Kerr.

Sheridan played with Canada in the Algarve Cup Mills, Skroski and Freeman reported to camp after a trip to Spain with the U-23 national team.

While Holly is hesitant to single out one player, he couldn’t help himself when asked about Rodriguez, last year’s NWSL Rookie of the Year.

“Right now, Rocky’s in a good place,” Holly said. “I told this to the ownership after the draft. I kind of forgot how impactful she is. You almost take her for granted. Rocky came into camp sharp, hungry and physically fit. Some of the things she did against the boys team was a pleasure to watch. We want to fine tune her decisions on the ball and still give her the freedom to express herself.”

Rodriguez will be paired with Killion in the midfield. Corboz, Rampone and Skroski will be counted on to be the fulcrum starting the attack from a compact defense.

Sky Blue will play against St. John’s University on Saturday at 3 p.m. in Jamaica. The team returns to New Jersey to host the University of North Carolina on April 1 at Georgian Court University in Lakewood and theb Penn State University on April 9 at a site to be determined.

Notes

Sam Kerr is not in camp after competing with Australia but is expected soon. … Tasha Kai is recovering from postseason surgery and is expected in New Jersey before the April 15 season opener in Seattle. She’s not expected to return to the lineup until May at the earliest. … Kristin Grubka, a former No. 2 draft choice and regular starter last year, is not in camp and is undecided about continuing her professional career.