Silence may be golden for Sky Blue FC in the NWSL off-season

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by TOM SLATER

For the second year in a row, it’s been a pretty silent fall for Sky Blue FC. While other National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams have seen players come and go, Sky Blue has been oddly quiet.

But this year the silence speaks volumes.

The difference between the two off-seasons are monumental. Maybe most important, the team has a permanent head coach this time around – something not in place until two days before the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) draft in January. Christy Holly was eventually named head coach after spending all fall and early winter making personal decisions in an interim basis.

Although it seemed to take longer than necessary, that decision was perhaps the touchstone and according to the head coach Christy Holly, the club is on the right track.

“Absolutely, compared to this time last year, we have a totally different feeling with the club,” Holly said. “It was well-documented that his time last year we were dropping players left and right and there was talk that players didn’t want to play here. That made it extremely challenging.  But after the season, every player we talked to said they had a fantastic experience.  More important, they bought into experience and want to be part of it next year.”

Holly was a legitimate candidate for NWSL coach of the year as he kept the Sky Blue in contention for a playoff spot right up until the final weeks of the season. With time being of the essence, Holly made some smart decisions on trialist players (remember Kelly Conheeney’s inspirational opening night game-winner?), used a great college draft to obtain four starters and got some courageous efforts from some veterans.

“Now we feel we have a foundation, but we want to build on it,” he said. “It’s nice that everyone wants to come back but we can sit still. How can we become the best club in the NWSL? That’s our goal now.”

The only Sky Blue FC players to leave the fold since October are defender CoCo Goodson, who only played eight minutes in the season finale – and Shawn Gordon, a seldom-used midfielder.  Everyone else – including 41-year-old medical marvel and captain Christie Rampone.

Rampone stepped down from the national team pool and concentrated solely on her club side in 2016. The central defender played every minute of the season and helped mold a very young defensive unit that included a rookie, a second-year player and a trialist on the backline. In goal were two Carolines – Casey and Stanley – who had one NWSL game between them.

“She (Rampone) is under-rated, if that’s possible,” said Holly. “What she brings in terms of leadership is invaluable. How she interacted with the everyone from the rookies to the veterans helped mold our team. But also the work she puts in on the field is incredible.”

Rampone said she would make the decision on when she retires on no one’s timetable but her own.  She’ll wake up one day and just know. There’s still three months before pre-season begins, but in talking to Holly, you get the feeling that there’s one more season left in her.

The central midfield looks to improve on a very high quality year. Sarah Killion enters her third NWSL season as a calm and poised holding midfielder. Raquel Rodriguez was the league’s Rookie of the Year and will only get better with time.

But those of you looking for a blockbuster name may have to wait. Holly said that to get a big name in a trade, they would most likely have to give one up, too.

“We have little or no interest in giving up our players,” he said. “We are looking every day to add to our roster but it has to make sense. We are looking at certain positions where we want to add a star quality player or where we need more depth.”

For the first time in three seasons, there is no huge break for international play. Kelley O’Hara will be here for virtually the entire season.  The club continues to finalize contract negotiations with Australian striker Sam Kerr. If healthy, the form a potent scoring tandem. That means Tasha Kai, who played in all 20 matches and averaged over 70 minutes a game, can play a more strategic role by coming off the bench with fresh legs and quality minutes.

Obvious areas of weakness are outside midfielder and outside defender. Taylor Lytle and Erin Simon patrolled those areas last summer. Both were solid if not sensational. Players who had spot duty included Conheeney, Catherine Zimmerman, Danielle Schulmann, Nikki Stanton and Kim DeCesare.

“We talk every day about getting players who could help us,” said Holly. “We’re close on announcing a few but they are still in negotiations.”

Holly did a great job in identifying new players through open tryouts. Now, he may look into other foreign leagues to attract players, a similar strategy used with Australia’s W-League.

And if those negotiations pan out, Sky Blue’s silence may be broken rather quickly.