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Sky Blue FC has turned around its culture. Now can it get good at soccer?

The staff at Sky Blue FC had much more important things to worry about than immediate results this offseason. The Challenge Cup is step one in a tough rebuilding process.

SOCCER: AUG 03 NWSL - Sky Blue FC at Portland Thorns FC

Last season represented the start of a sharp turnaround for Sky Blue FC. Plagued by years of poor management, club ownership got more involved in 2019, and new general manager Alyse LaHue got to work at improving both the roster and conditions for players. The club restored its reputation with players and looks to be heading in an excellent direction.

Things will take longer to change on the field than off it, though. Despite much improved vibes, Sky Blue finished second-bottom in 2019, and with a minus-14 goal differential. It only finished above Orlando Pride thanks to a superhuman season from goalkeeper Kalien Sheridan. In an effort to improve results, 13 new players were brought in.

But the NWSL Challenge Cup is likely to be more of a development opportunity for youngsters than it is a chance for Sky Blue to win some hardware. Injuries are keeping USWNT stars Mallory Pugh and Carli Lloyd from participating in the tournament. It’s tough to envision Sky Blue doing well without them. But it’s still going to be very interesting to see what kind of progress head coach Freya Coombe can make with this group, and how she can set them up for success in 2021.

“All of these squad updates have to be part of a big plan that Coombe has as a coach,” Pardeep Cattry, who reports on Sky Blue FC, tells me. “I think settling on a starting XI will be able to showcase how she plans to execute the plans set in place by the signings.”

Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights

New acquisition Margaret Purce had an excellent campaign for the Portland Thorns last season, and she’s going to add a lot of punch to the Sky Blue attack.

Who’s missing?

The aforementioned USWNT stars Pugh and Lloyd are big misses, but so is fullback Caprice Dydasco. She tore her ACL in training before the tournament, and hopefully she makes a speedy recovery ahead of next season.

Projected lineup

Coombe ran with variants on 4-4-2 during her interim period as manager last season, and her roster looks built to continue playing that way. This11 does not have a sky blue shirt option, please forgive me.

Lineup questions

Oh boy, are there tons. Coombe didn’t want to give anything away when I spoke to her, and the roster Sky Blue released answers none of my questions either. Imani Dorsey is listed as a forward, despite playing left back almost exclusively under Coombe, and Dydasco’s absence. Purce, who did her best work as a forward for Portland, is listed as a midfielder.

This is not an uncommon phenomenon in women’s soccer. Teams often submit their rosters without positions and club media staff guesses, or coaches try to deliberately mislead opponents. But we have no preseason tape to go off, so I just have to guess based on last year’s lineups and what I think of the players.

“We’ve been training players for where we think they’re going to see the most minutes, but we’re grateful that they’re versatile enough that they can play in multiple positions,” is all Coombe would tell me on the subject.

In any event, the team’s lack of fullback depth means that at least one of Dorsey, Purce or Paige Monaghan is going to need to fill in there. The returning Sabrina Flores had a good stint with Sevilla in Spain and should be ready to make an instant impact.

Coombe said she was impressed with the progress the club’s rookies had made, and I suspect Evelyne Viens will be ready to play a big role right away. She was incredible at getting her shots off while regularly triple-teamed in college, and might be even more effective with better teammates and space to work with.

How does Sky Blue play?

Given that Coombe took over late in the season and didn’t have any players that she had a say in acquiring, it’s unfair to put any of the team’s problems on her, or assume any of them will continue into this season.

But last year’s Sky Blue was sneakily bad, and rescued from embarrassment by Sheridan. Despite finishing with a goal differential that was 15 better than Orlando’s, its Expected Goals differential was actually worse than the Pride, according to StatsBomb. Sheridan had the biggest gap between xG against and actual conceded goals of any keeper in NWSL.

Sky Blue was not a high pressure team at all. The average position of its defensive actions was the deepest of all teams in NWSL, and it allowed the most opposition passes per defensive action. Basically, it tried to sit in shape and let opponents pass around their own half, waiting for the ball to get into the final third before trying to win it back.

If you’re looking for good news, Sky Blue completed the most dribbles and had the highest dribbling percentage in the league, which should only improve with the addition of Purce, and eventually, Mallory Pugh. It had the lowest completed crosses percentage though, which is an especially big problem for a team that plays a conventional 4-4-2 formation. The team also created almost nothing from attacking set pieces.

The tl;dr: Coombe has a lot of work ahead of her.

Fans should be patient — this is a long-term project

Coming from a place where players would rather retire or go overseas than for the club, it was never going to be a quick turnaround for Sky Blue FC. The club has lost several big assets for nothing or had to trade them for 50 cents on the dollar because it had zero leverage.

Before it could improve on the field, Sky Blue had to improve off the field.

“The problems were definitely easy to diagnose,” Cattry says. “Get normal housing, a good training ground with normal facilities, and a professional stadium with showers, at the very least, but some of that is not actually easy.”

LaHue eventually struck a deal with the New York Red Bulls to get the club into professional-quality facilities this season, thanks to owner Tammy Murphy willing to spend some money. The team unfortunately hasn’t gotten to make use of them yet, but getting that deal done is enough to attract top players to the club again.

“I think it’s interesting to compare it to the off the field improvements,” Cattry says, “because any rise up the ranks on the field is just going to take longer.

Sky Blue’s first order of business has been to establish a new culture by signing players who are well-respected around the league as leaders. Estelle Johnson — who previously captained the Spirit — arrived last season. This offseason, Sky Blue traded for McCall Zerboni, who you might know for a famous halftime speech. She’s been a popular figure around the North Carolina Courage during its multiple championship seasons.

“That’s something that we put a lot of emphasis on, making sure that we’re building around the right people,” Coombe says. “We’re very cognizant of the fact that if we’re going to build a new team, then we need to build it around a great culture. That’s something that we’ve focused on, bringing in players that will get the culture of this club moving forward.”

Before it could focus on getting top notch players, Sky Blue had to put down the foundation. With that sorted, Sky Blue can turn its attention to getting good at soccer again.

Midge Purce rules

Purce’s one USWNT cap has come at fullback, and she played well there. With a lot of forward options and not a lot of defensive options, Vlatko Andonovski would probably love to see Purce play fullback. But Coombe probably shouldn’t do that, and it doesn’t sound like she’s going to.

“I’ve been in conversation with Vlatko about Midge who’s been in a couple of national team camps now, about where he wants to see her play,” Coombe says. “But ultimately we have to do what’s best for Sky Blue first, as well as that player’s career. At the end of the day we will put them where we want to put them.”

I hope that where Coombe wants to put Purce is striker, because she did one hell of a job there last season. Purce’s xG + xG assisted per 90 was 4th in NWSL. Only Sam Kerr and the Courage duo of Lynn Wlliams and Jessica McDonald bested her. Purce got a high volume of shots, took high quality shots, dribbled past a lot of people, and also contributed in the press.

This is an extremely effective striker. She should not play fullback.

What’s a successful tournament for Sky Blue?

Honestly, just getting a lot of minutes for young players and getting an understanding of the way Coombe wants them to play. Even if Sky Blue finishes in last place, if it does so while appearing to make progress on the field, there’s nothing wrong with that. This is a group that should not be disheartened by bad results. They’re getting experience to prepare themselves for playoff contention next season.

Schedule

Sky Blue FC vs. Reign — Tuesday, June 30

Royals vs. Sky Blue FC — Saturday, July 4

Sky Blue FC vs. Dash - Wednesday, July 8

Sky Blue FC vs. Courage - Monday, July 13