Sky Blue ready to take the field for first time in 2016

kelly o'hara

by TOM SLATER

Just after a week worth of preseason training, you can hear the excitement in new coach Christy Holly’s voice as he talks about this Sky Blue FC squad.

And he’ll see just what kind of hand he’s been dealt when Sky Blue takes on St. John’s University at 2 p.m. Sunday – weather permitting.

Tomorrow’s match at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School may mark the second straight year the Sky Blue has some snow removal to do. Last year’s match versus the University of North Carolina was delayed almost two hours as fans, players and staff picked up snow shovels and cleared the pitch of several inches of snow. The weather forecast remains unpredictable for now but there could be a repeat of the snow removal.

“Yeah, we’re hoping we don’t’ run into the snow again but we’re anxious to take the field,” said Holly. “We’re going to take a look at some of our new players and also play some of the bigger names so  the fans can see them. We’ll try to get as many as players a look but ultimately what we’re looking for is getting ready for April 17 when we open the season in Seattle.”

After a week of practice, Holly is liking what he sees. With nearly the entire squad now in camp, he’s had a chance to mold the team the way he wants to.

“It’s been a good experience for the younger players, especially the rookies and the ones we’ve invited to camp, to see professionals likes Natasha Kai and Christie Rampone and Kelley O’Hara, and see how they go about their work,” said Holly. “It is very special that they have the opportunity to train next to world class players.”

Kai and Rampone are two players to keep an eye on. Kai, a former Sky Blue performer on the 2009 Women’s Professional Soccer League (WPS) championship team and an Olympic Gold winner, is back after 4 years outside of professional soccer. At 33, she still brings enthusiasm to the club. There’s a wait and see approach to how it plays out on the pitch.

“She has brought an unbelievable energy to the team and it’s been great,” said the coach. “One thing  about her is you never know what to expect on and off the field. She’s just so unpredictable. And that’s what makes her fun to coach and to watch.”

Rampone has been an ageless wonder but her international career is uncertain. She’ll turn 41 in June. She saw her play with the United States National Women’s Team decline during the World Cup run last summer. She hasn’t been picked for the Olympic Qualifiers or the SheBelieves Cup.

Despite all of that, Holly hasn’t seen any decline in the first week of camp.

“Christie’s been recovering from her surgery from December and we wanted her to ease into things, but that’s not her, she said. “She finished her physical testing and she’s just as strong and as fit as ever. It’s amazing. And technically, she keeps getting better. She was hitting 30-yard passes and putting them right on teammates’ feet in stride.”

The match will also let Holly and Sky Blue FC fans see the exciting patch of rookies, including Penn State’s Raquel Rodriguez, for the first time.

And then there’s the goalkeeper situation, which was made precarious when Brittany Cameron left the team to stay in Japan. The team has draft pick Caroline Casey from William and Mary and Carolien Stanley, picked up from Seattle as camp opened.  The two figure to battle it out for the starting job – for now.

“Brittany was obviously a big part of our team and she will be hard to replace,” the coach said.  “We’re still looking around the league and the world to see if there is someone out there that can do the job.”

Expect Casey and Stanley to play a half as Sky Blue FC gets unveiled to the public for the first time in 2016 – weather permitting, of course.