Sky Blue FC announced last week that they’ve found their new permanent head coach in Freya Coombe, promoting her from the interim head coach position she was handling for the back end of the 2019 NWSL season. Coombe will now be challenged to build off of Sky Blue’s encouraging 2019, which saw them not in last place, and with 400% more wins than the 2018 season (or rather, five wins instead of one, but 400% certainly sounds more impressive). Damning with faint praise? Hardly. Even for non-Sky Blue fans, it’s hard not to enjoy the turnaround they’ve made, both on and off the pitch. So there’s some fair emotional investment here as well, as well as much-needed stability for a club that fired its last head coach on June 28, but didn’t officially name Coombe interim head coach until September 4.
“I just kind of had to do the job to the best of my ability until someone told me to stop or to keep going in more of an official capacity,” Coombe said in a phone interview.
Coombe is a former player herself, with both USSF and UEFA B licenses, and a USSF A in the works. “I think it’s a great time to be involved with the club,” she said. “I think that the vision that Tammy and the owners have for the club and then obviously the execution by Alyse to be able to bring all those ideas to fruit – I’ve got such a sense of excitement.”
She talks about her coaching style as sharing responsibility with players, having them accountable to performances on the field, with management and coaching just as accountable for their areas of work in Coombe’s “high performance environment.” She wants the team to improve the consistency of their performances, no longer scattering a good half here or there or giving up points in the last 15 minutes of a game. She points out that the team has had very successful periods of play, like a strong first half against the North Carolina Courage at home in September, or their 1-0 away win over the Reign.
“I think sometimes what we were missing was just that ability to finish off a great performance and get the points. Throughout the season there have been many good performances but the points haven’t always followed,” she said.
“There’s such fine margins involved in the game, in this league, so you can lose by one, you can win by one, and many teams face that across the board. There’s very few blowouts or big scorelines. It is very close and that’s a testament to the players within the league but sometimes you do just need a little bit of luck to go your way. We’ve been on the receiving end of that and also not.”
Sky Blue will have a chance to fill in any gaps and build some bench depth with the 2020 College Draft. Coombe stayed with generalizations when discussing her plans for the draft, and pointed out the experienced players at the core of the team, like Carli Lloyd and Estelle Johnson, surrounded by young talent like Paige Monaghan, Imani Dorsey, and Julie James. She praised the scouting teams that recommended Dorsey and Monaghan, both players who came in and made big rookie impacts.
“I think we’ve just got to look at the whole player in terms of obviously what they can do on the field,” she said of her scouting philosophy. “There’s going to be players within big [NCAA] teams that have had a lot of success within the tournaments this year, but there might also be some very talented players on a team that maybe hasn’t made a tournament game or hasn’t performed as well in the tournament as the team would’ve hoped, but the player’s still strong as individuals and I think you’ve got to look at their mentality as well. Have they got that mentality to be a top pro and are they really hungry and motivated in order to do it?”
Rookies aside, a lot of focus in 2020 will likely land on Dorsey, who was the 2018 NWSL rookie of the year for her work as a forward, but spent 2019 shifting from forward to fullback. Coombe doesn’t seem inclined to change that any time soon. “The good thing about Imani is that she can play at the back or she can play forwards and she’s got great attributes for both,” Coombe said. “It’s where she can be played or we can get the most out of her and help her on her development journey, but I think we can be open to that. She can do both.”
Coombe said she is in conversation with USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who has been calling Dorsey into camp as a defender. “It’s important that we work closely together - the club and the national team - to ensure the players got the best opportunity to develop to their full potential because obviously it benefits both parties. So we’ll be working together along with Imani to try and help her on her journey and maximize her talent.”
Andonovski, known for his defensive coaching abilities, may be the person you want helping Dorsey transition more towards fullback, although without her at forward, Sky Blue does feel a little paltry on firepower. We’ll find out next year, when Coombe will have the benefit of the draft and a full preseason.
“I think definitely even though our shots on goal sort of ratio went up towards the end of the season, we still need to improve a little bit to finishing our chances,” she said. “We’re definitely going to do the best that we can do. Hopefully we’re be there in the playoffs.”
She laughed when asked if making predictions for 2020 was jinxing it. “We’re no longer an underdog,” she said. It’ll be quite the story if she turns out to be right.