April 4, 2010

Sky Blue 2010 - Defending Champs Have Depth and Talent

Coach: Paula Miettinen
2009 Record: 7-8-5 (4th place)
Postseason: Defeated Washington 2-1, Saint Louis 1-0, and Los Angeles 1-0 for the WPS Championship.

Returnees (11): Anita Asante, Yael Averbuch, Karen Bardsley, Jenni Branam, Keeley Dowling, Natasha Kai, Heather O’Reilly, Christie Rampone, Rosana, Meghan Schnur, Kacey White.
Draft Choices (4): Brittany Taylor, Danielle Johnson, Katie Schoepfer, Meagan Snell
LA Dispersal Draft (1): Kiersten Dallstream
International Signings ( 3): Laura Kalmari, Daphne Koster, Jessica Landström
Free Agents (3): Carli Lloyd, Ashley Thompson, Angela Salem.

For Sky Blue FC, the 2009 season was a tumultuous one. They got out to a terribly slow start, went through two coaching changes, and were in last place as late as early July. They made the playoffs on the last day of the season by the skin of their teeth and then put together a great playoff run to win the championship.

The orange clad team from Jersey start the 2010 season with yet another new coach, Paula Miettinen of Finland. But unlike early 2009, there is a confident mood surrounding the Sky Blue organization. Sky Blue has as many returning starters as any team in the league and they have added four big name free agents to the fold. Domestically, they plucked Carli Lloyd away from Chicago and then on the international front, they looked toward Europe to add a trio of talented players in Laura Kalmari, Daphne Koster, and Jessica Landström. Indeed, Miettinen appears to have the deepest squad in the league.

Goalkeeping-Sky Blue is one of the few teams in WPS to return their top two keepers from ’09. Leading the way is Jen Branam, who had a stellar run to finish the season. Short in stature, Branam relies on guts, quickness, and mobility. And after watching her venture 40 yards out during SBFC’s playoff run, it’s safe to say she may be the league’s most aggressive goalkeeper. Karen Bardsley gives Sky Blue a quality backup. A member of the English National Team, Bardsley shared starting duties with Branam early last year. Ashley Thompson, who played for Hudson Valley of the W-League in 2009, will be Sky Blue’s developmental keeper.

Defenders-Sky Blue returns all four starters from last season's back line and they are a strong group. It starts in the middle with Christie Rampone and Anita Asante. Rampone has been a mainstay on the USWNT for years and the team's captain. Asante is a member of the English National Team and has over 40 caps. Keeley Dowling returns at outside right back. Dowling had a very good season in 2009, capping it off with a game winning goal against Saint Louis in the playoffs. Not to mention, she also has one the biggest vertical leaps in WPS. Meghan Schnur had a solid 2009 season at outside left and now has international experience of her own.

However, defense became an area of concern with Christie Rampone's pregnancy and Anita Asante injured, leaving SBFC looking woefully thin on the back line. In addition, they lost versatile role players Jen Buczkowski and Julianne Sitch. But Sky Blue quickly moved to fix that problem by adding Daphne Koster, captain of the Dutch National Team, and top college prospect Brittany Taylor out of Connecticut. Koster is one of the best defenders in Europe and she brings over 90 caps of international experience to Sky Blue. Taylor just got her first cap with the USWNT and she played last year with Sky Blue’s Hudson Valley affiliate. In addition to Taylor, Sky Blue drafted Danielle Johnson out of Ole Miss. When Rampone and Asante return, the problem will be finding playing time for everyone. Once everyone is back, this could be the best defense in WPS.

Midfielders-It will be interesting to see how Miettinen uses her many talented midfielders in the formation. Yael Averbuch finished strong in 2009 after seeing little playing time early on and has played her way onto the USWNT. She was especially effective in the postseason, assisting on 2 of SBFC’s 4 playoff goals. Heather O’Reilly, Kacey White, and Rosana gives Sky Blue a trio of talented attacking midfielders. They combined for 10 goals and four assists in 2009.

Perhaps the biggest question here will be how much the addition of Carli Lloyd will help. After her Olympic heroics in 2008, she had a fairly disappointing season for the Red Stars in ’09. However, her play at the Algarve Cup was praised by national team coach, Pia Sundhage, and she has already proven to be a big offensive contributor in the preseason.

Forwards-After managing to score 6 goals in an injury filled 2009 season, Natasha Kai returns with a clean bill of health and ready to menace opposing defenses. Sky Blue has added Jessica Landström, who scored 12 goals last year with Linköpings in Sweden, and Laura Kalmari, Finland’s all-time leading scorer. At nearly 6 feet tall, Landström gives Sky Blue one of the tallest strikers in the league. For depth, SBFC drafted Katie Schoepfer (Penn St.) and Meagan Snell (Santa Clara). In a pinch, Sky Blue could always move Rosana or White forward.

Summary-There is a lot to like about this Sky Blue team. They now have the deepest team in the league. They've brought back as good a nucleus from last year as any other team and they made some nice international signings which should fill in areas that could have been weaknesses. They also have a lot of size and speed on this team. And they return one of the league’s top goalkeepers as of the end of the season. The wait for Rampone and Asante to join the team could lead to a little anxiety, but Sky Blue’s depth should provide them with suitable alternatives in the interim.

The one thing I can’t get out of my head, though, is that this team came within an eyelash of being a 5th place also ran last season. If Kerri Hanks doesn’t score in stoppage against Chicago or if Boston holds on to its 1-0 lead over LA on the final day of the season, we would be talking about a team that missed the playoffs in 2009. Sky Blue made the playoffs and the rest is history. But which team are they, the one that started painfully slow last season and finished with a losing record in the regular season or the team that swept through the playoffs with amazing efficiency to the championship? Only time will tell.