Imani Dorsey was a late arrival to Sky Blue FC in May 2018. She had to finish her college degree at Duke first after going #5 overall in the 2018 NWSL college draft, and wasn’t sure how it would go, trying to work her way into a team that had already started its season. She was more than aware that, with a roster already playing games, she essentially could be taking someone’s spot. But she approached things with a levelheadedness you might not expect to see in a rookie.
“I was just working one small step to the next,” she said in a call with All for XI. “That was my first step – get acclimated, make the team. And then my next step was learn the playing style, play hard, get on the field. And then consistently get on the field, stay on the field for 90 minutes.”
It was a methodical, measured approach, but Dorsey doesn’t necessarily consider herself someone who is purposely methodical, just someone who tries to break things down to their simplest level. “I just want to make the next pass. I want to have a crisp touch,” she said. “I’m at my best when things are intuitive and I’m playing with my instincts and not thinking too much.”
That kind of thinking led to a Rookie of the Year performance in 2018. Dorsey’s stats on their own might not scream RotY - four goals and one assist in 13 games - but taken in the context of Sky Blue’s season, when they won just one game overall and scored 21 goals total, and the way her talented attacking play shone through despite all the team’s setbacks, the pick seems much more obvious. Not that Dorsey ever thought about the award. “I was so focused on making sure that I was worthy of taking somebody else’s spot,” she said, “Being picked as a draftee and then taking somebody’s spot, that really hit home with me and I felt like I have a responsibility to the people around me to be a great teammate and to help this team in any way possible.”
For someone who’s just gone through her first ever season as a pro, she already sounds like a team veteran, and that’s certainly going to be an important piece of Sky Blue’s 2019 as they try to rebuild after last year’s bruising, demoralizing season. Not just on the field; their embattled performance was a symptom, if anything, of dysfunction off the field, as it eventually came to light the players weren’t being provided things like adequate housing or training facilities. Housing and training seem to have improved somewhat for this season, but given team GM Tony Novo’s habit of denying or downplaying these well-documented issues, an air of skepticism remains among fans.
Dorsey didn’t shy away from the fact that last season, well, sucked. But neither does she seem to be dwelling on it, instead considering it a balance between acknowledging it happened, but not letting it hold them back. “[We don’t want] to bring up the hardships of last season to complain and bring people down, so in that regard we move forward and we’re like the past is the past and it’s a blank slate,” she said. “But I think there definitely was a lot of strength and unity and resilience. Resilience is one of our core values, and I think we definitely understand from what we went through last season. So if anything we just use it to come closer together and remind ourselves that we’ve been through worse.”
For Dorsey herself, she’s looking forward to getting play a full season, particularly without the added struggle of adjusting from being a student athlete to being a professional. “This season is a new opportunity because it feels like I have my feet under me for once. So I’m excited that I have that footing already and I can just go from there,” she said.
She’s been reviewing game tape in the offseason, learning all she can not just about the team, but about herself. “Getting a better sense of my tendencies, defense and on attack, was a big thing,” she said, citing improvement in her field vision. “Because I think being aware of my own surroundings helps me connect with my teammates on the field.” Again, that methodical, workmanlike philosophy, even though Dorsey resists the methodical label.
Dorsey is also aware that a good, consistent season could help improve her profile for the US women’s national team. She’s spent a little time with the U-23 team, and after the World Cup, there will be more room for young players to get a look from the WNT coaching staff. “I’m an ambitious person. A national team spot is definitely something that I think we all aspire to, it’s something that I would love to reach,” she said. But again, that levelheadedness that seems to characterize much of Dorsey’s thinking about the game and her career. She continued, “I don’t want to get bogged down in that. I feel like I’m at my best when I’m worrying about the team’s outcome and what I can do to best assist our team. That’s how I keep it in perspective for myself and then with that, the performance comes.”
Sky Blue will open up their season this year away at Washington on April 13, then return for their home opener against Houston on April 20. Fellow bottom-of-the-table team Washington might be a good way to get acclimatized to the season, but both Washington and Houston have done a little rebuilding of their own in the offseason. Dorsey is excited, though, in the way that any player is excited to finally step on the field again. “It’s been a couple months and I’ve missed it,” she said. She’s had some distraction in the form of the NCAA basketball tournament (“My Blue Devils, my heart aches,” she said about Duke’s Elite Eight loss to Michigan State. But also: “It’s just the most satisfying thing on Earth,” on UNC going out a round earlier in the Sweet Sixteen.) but nothing beats playing under the lights for a cheering crowd.
Dorsey had this message for Sky Blue fans: “Thank you for the all the support. It fuels us, it drives us, it keeps us motivated, and I’m so excited to get out there and interact with them.”
Will Dorsey pull off another standout season? Perhaps the better question is if Sky Blue will have players around her that can help facilitate standout play (paging Savannah McCaskill). In a year when every team is losing multiple star internationals for months around the World Cup, while Sky Blue only needs to adjust to playing without Carli Lloyd, this could be not just Dorsey’s but Sky Blue’s chance to make their case for emerging from the depths of the league table. Last season was last season. 2019 is a new year, with new players, and a no-longer-rookie Imani Dorsey. “It just makes you tougher,” Dorsey said about last season. This year? “We know what we can do when we work together.”