By TOM SLATER
Everyone wants to start the season on a winning note, and for the last four years Sky Blue has won its National Women’s Soccer League opener. But in the last three seasons the club has has failed to maintain that momentum.
In the past two season, Sky Blue beat a pair of defending champions — FC Kansas City in 2015 and the Seattle Reign in 2016 — on the road before settling into a less fortunate streak. Both times Sky Blue’s momentum stalled and the team tried in vain to slip into a playoff spot, falling short both years.
This year might be different. The New Jersey side opens in Seattle on Saturday night (10 p,m. Eastern, streaming live on the go90 app). On paper, it appears that this year’s team is stronger and deeper.
“Last year, it was almost like a jigsaw puzzle trying to fit the pieces together,” said Coach Christy Holly, who is in his second year with the team. “This year I think we’re a little bit closer to the final product. We’ve been selective about the type of players that come in to the system. There’s a real level of energy and excitement that comes into this game. What we need to do is continue with that and take it into every single game. Finding a level of consistency is difficult, especially with a young team. I’m very optimistic about what this squad can do in 2017.”
One reason for the optimism is a second straight strong college draft. Sky Blue took six players and all will see significant playing time. Three players in particular strengthened both Sky Blue’s backline and goalkeeping.
Southern California alumnas Kayla Mills and Mandy Freeman will immediately have an impact in defense and will be in front of their fellow rookie goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. Sheridan has been tipped as a future starter for Canada’s women’s national team. Mills and Freeman will most likely fit around last year’s rookie sensation from Rutgers, Erica Skroski and the tireless veteran Christie Rampone, 41 the former captain of the United States women’s national team.
The ability of the newcomers to fit in the backline enabled Holly to make a move that could be the difference between contender and pretender. Holly is able to move U.S. international Kelley O’Hara from defender to striker, where she will most likely pair with Sam Kerr, the Australia international, giving Sky Blue a more potent offense.
Kerr has been an exciting, young star in the NWSL. She’s led Sky Blue in goals the past two seasons despite playing in just 18 total matches. In four NWSL seasons, Kerr, 23, has registered 36 goals and 11 assists in only 59 appearances.
O’Hara was one of the top offensive players in the country while at Stanford University, though she’s been mainly a defender for club and country.
“That [moving O’Hara] was predetermined before the draft ,” Holly said. “That is why we went after those players [Mills and Freeman]. That move lets her play more freely and it excites her. We’re definitely excited about her playing in what is the natural position for her.”
While a good start to the NWSL season is important, it will come down to what happens next.
“We want to emphasize that it’s a journey,” Holly said. “Everyone gets excited and there’s a lot of energy for the first game. We have to learn to keep it up and take that intensity into every match every weekend.”
By winning the 2016 season series with Reign FC (1-0-1), Sky Blue leveled the series to a cumulative 3-3-4 record. Entering its fifth season in the NWSL, Sky Blue has never lost on opening weekend.