Metropolitan team sports return tonight in Utah, as Sky Blue FC partakes in the NWSL’s 2020 Challenge Cup.
Team sports have returned to the metropolitan area. The roar of the crowd is still on mute, but fans can still tune in to represent their area, particularly the Harrison, New Jersey area.
Sky Blue FC will begin an abbreviated 2020 season on Tuesday night, as they’ll be one of eight contenders for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup. Normally an in-season tournament, the Challenge Cup will effectively serve as the NWSL’s eighth season of competition. Proceedings began on Saturday sans spectators at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman Utah, with half of the participants partaking in a doubleheader. Sky Blue is part of the second part of a Tuesday pair, taking on Washington State-based OL Reign (10 p.m. ET, CBS All Access).
Eight of the NWSL’s nine teams (one, the Orlando Pride, has pulled out due to positive coronavirus tests) are participating and will each play four matches en route to tournament seeding. The finale will come on July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the host Utah Royals FC.
Whether you’re returning to support The Beez or a newcomer seeking sports. here’s what you need to know about the squad’s endeavors…
Blue and (Later) Red
Sky Blue FC was formed in 2007 and previously partook in Women’s Professional Soccer. They were absorbed in the NSWL after WPS’ folding, but skies have been gray ever since. They reached the NWSL’s semifinals in their 2013 debut, but have failed to reach the postseason since. 2018 was perhaps rock-bottom to the tune of a 1-17-6 record (accompanied by reports of poor management, training facilities, transportation, and housing) but 2019 was a step in the right direction. Sky Blue went 5-14-5 and hosted over 8,000 fans for a September match at Red Bull Arena last season. The MLS facility in Harrison was slated to be their full-time home in 2020 before current events stepped in.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is part of Sky Blue’s ownership group alongside his wife Tammy. The state’s First Lady was pleased with the new collaboration in a statement to the team website upon the announcement of the collaboration last November.
“Last season demonstrated that we are ready to take our players and fans to the next level,” Tammy said. “This move provides our professional athletes with the top-notch facilities they deserve and gives our growing fanbase increased access via public transit and an enhanced gameday experience.”
Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue agreed, remarking “The move to Red Bull Arena builds upon the positive momentum we gained last season and will help propel our club and the league to the next level.”
Coombe on Over
With the move to Harrison (from Rutgers-hosted settings in Piscataway) delayed by a year, current Sky Blue duties now lay in the hands of first-year head coach Freya Coombe. She took the team over in September after the departure of third-year coach Denise Reddy and oversaw a 1-3-1 stretch to end the season. Included in that group was a win over Tuesday’s opponent (then known as Seattle Reign FC) and a draw with Orlando in the Harrison demonstration.
The team’s decisionmakers felt her stint at the end of the 2019 campaign made her very deserving of full-time duties.
“Freya’s undeniable work ethic made our decision easy,” Tammy Murphy remarked to the team’s website. “She earned the trust and respect of our players quickly last season, and her steady leadership will provide consistency.”
Coombe previously partook in on and off-field endeavors with Reading FC, part of the Barclays FC Women’s Super League, the top women’s football division in England.
“We laid a strong foundation for success last year,” Coombe recalled after her December promotion “We’re already working diligently this offseason to help the organization take the next step.”
Sky Blue will bring a roster of 26 players to Utah, sequestering in an Olympic Village-like setting that other leagues are set to emulate upon their returns later this summer. Not included in that tally are Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh, each of whom is renowned for their national squad exploits. Lloyd is currently working off a knee injury while Pugh hasn’t fully recovered from a hip ailment.
Their absence will make the arrival of another US national team representative, McCall Zerboni, who knows what it’s like to win in the Empire State, all the more crucial. She previously won an NWSL title with the Western New York Flash and was more recently part of the North Carolina Courage’s quest to consecutive championships in the most recent seasons. Zerboni has also been part of the NWSL’s Best XI in 2017 and 2018.
“She has a higher presence on the field, which is something that we believe that we needed,” LaHue remarked to Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “If she sees something that maybe doesn’t look quite right she’s not afraid to round the team up and say so. I think that’s tremendous, and it’s great leadership for us to have.”
Zerboni’s former Western New York teammate, Gina Lewandowski, is also set to oversee the young lineup. She felt the stay-at-home period was good for Sky Blue’s morale and helped them build as a team before getting the green light for Utah.
“I personally feel like I was able to get a lot stronger and fitter in that time period,” she said to Tim Shoemaker of The Morning Call. “All of us were able to take advantage of that time to work on our individual strength and technical aspects of the game. I had some resources at home that gave me the ability to be creative and work on my own weaknesses. I strengthened my body to the point where I was ready for preseason again.”
Each of Sky Blue’s 2020 NWSL Draft picks, including their top choice Evelyne Viens of South Florida (fifth overall) made the roster, as did captain Sarah Woldmoe. The midfielder is one of Sky Blue’s longest-tenured players, joining the team as a 2015 draft pick.
“I feel so confident about this roster heading into the NWSL Challenge Cup,” said team-captain Woldmoe said on the team site. “We all put in the work individually during quarantine and have really put it all together collectively now. Every day I get to work with teammates who are giving it their all to improve and prepare. It’s a fantastic feeling to know that we have the talent and drive to take us all the way. We are ready to go and we are so excited for this tournament.”
For the full roster, click here.
|6/30||OL Reign||10 p.m.||CBS All Access|
|7/4||Utah Royals FC||12:30 p.m.||CBS All Access|
|7/8||Houston Dash||10 p.m.||CBS All Access|
|7/13||North Carolina Courage||10 p.m.||CBS All Access|
|7/18||Quarterfinals||TBD||CBS All Access|
|7/22||Semifinals||TBD||CBS All Access|
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags