Rampone concentrating on Sky Blue as NWSL season opens

holly and rampone

by TOM SLATER

It’s been a different kind of National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) pre-season for Christie Rampone.

For nearly the last two decades, the Point Pleasant native has been getting ready for some international competition or training camp while also getting ready to play for her club, Sky Blue FC — the team she has known for all but one year since 2009.

Save for the years she was pregnant, Rampone has been constant on the United States Women’s National Team. Since 1997, she’s been part of the United States Women’s National Team, being the literal link from Michelle Akers to Mia Hamm to Abby Wambach to Carli Lloyd.

For the last eight years, she’s been Captain America and has guided her team to three Olympic Gold Medals and two Women’s World Cup trophies.

And now, as her compatriots ready for the Rio Olympics, she’s on the outside looking in.

Surgery in December and the recovery that followed has cut short her international career — for now at least. United States Women’s National Team coach Jill Ellis has stated that she would monitor Rampone’s health in NWSL and bring her in for camp in July for a final assessment. She’ll be competing with NWSL first-round draft choice Emily Sennett and current incumbents Julie Johnston and new co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn for a central defender’s spot.

With Ellis being difficult to predict — she tried middie Tobin Heath at right back last week — it’s anyone’s guess on whether Rampone will have a shot at winning back a roster spot.

But Rampone doesn’t seem ruffled. She’s setting her sights on the upcoming NWSL season when Sky Blue travels to the West Coast Sunday to face the Seattle Reign with a 7 p.m. start.

“The pre-season has been going well, the knee is responding well after surgery in December,” she said after a recent practice session. “It’s been a slow process getting back but my knee is feeling good. And I’m excited for this weekend.

“Jill has been great with me with open communication, asking how I’m doing and how I’m feeling. The next few weeks will be the true test of getting in games and seeing how the body responds after playing 90 minutes. We’ll just keep that discussion open (with Ellis).”

Rampone will be counted on heavily to captain the Sky Blue side — a club that has a very different look from a year ago. A team in transition might not be strong enough to describe the New Jersey team’s makeup. They lost key veterans like Nadia Nadim, Brittany Cameron, Katy Freels and Hayley Haagsma. Caitlin Foord decided at the last minute to sit out the NWSL season. And coach Jim Gabarra has been replaced by former assistant Christy Holly.

The additions have been interesting. Natasha Kai has been coaxed out of retirement and at 33 may still have enough energy left for a late push. The draft was a good one. First-round draft pick Raquel Rodriguez will take a spot in the midfield next to second-year holding midfielder Sarah Killion to form a young but exciting midfield. Rodriguez wowed everyone in college last year, winning the Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann Award as the top college player at Penn State. She led the Nitanny Lions to the school’s first NCAA championship.

Rodriguez is becoming an international star with six goals for Costa Rica in Olympic Qualifying in January.

Striker Leah Galston (Hofstra) and defender Erica Skorski (Rutgers) have played well in pre-season and could see minutes. Fourth-round pick Caroline Casey from William and Mary will battle for the goalkeeper slot with former Seattle Reign backup Caroline Stanley.

Veteran international Kelley O’Hara is also back, and while she’s making a name for herself with the USWNT as a defender, she can be plugged in anywhere.

The puzzle will have to come together rather quickly as Seattle is a tough opener, especially with the cross country travel.

But Rampone is optimistic.

“It’s been exciting,” she said. “A lot of new faces. And a new head coach in Christy Holly, who brings a lot of energy. You’re going to see a lot of new faces on the field and I think they’re doing a great job. It’s just getting through that first NWSL game and getting that under your belt. Because the season is long and we’re expecting good things from Sky Blue this year.”

And it starts Sunday.