March 29, 2011

Can New Faces Lead Sky Blue Back to the Top?

To be fair, there wasn't that much difference between the 2009 and 2010 regular seasons for Sky Blue FC. In 2009, Sky Blue finished in fourth place, squeaking into a playoff position by a single point. In 2010, SBFC finished a mere three points out of the final playoff spot, settling for fifth place. The point totals weren't that different and neither team was exactly a scoring juggernaut.

The major difference, of course, was that 2009 ended in a championship, while 2010 finished in disappointment. The success at the end of 2009 breeded expectations that were perhaps too high for last year's team. Certainly bitten by the injury bug, Sky Blue just simply wasn't able to produce a Cinderella story in 2010.

The 2011 season brings a new head coach (how many is that now?), a new general manager, and a significant number of roster changes. Gone are several name players from the past two campaigns including captain Christie Rampone, Meghan Schnur, Keeley Dowling, Yael Averbuch, Rosana, Kacey White, and Tasha Kai. Only five players return who started as many as seven matches last season. So new SBFC coach, Jim Gabarra, presumably enters the 2011 season with a team molded to his style of play.

The only three players returning from the midfield forward are their 2010 goals leader, Laura Kalmari, their 2010 assists leader, Heather O'Reilly, and reserve Kiersten Dallstream. The newcomers, however, are quite talented.

Let's start with Therese Sjögran, a remarkable player who has spent nearly 15 years with the Swedish National Team. Sky Blue completed a loan agreement with her Swedish club, Ldb FC Malmö, which will enable WPS audiences to see her talent on a more regular basis.

Sjögran will be joined in the middle with attacking mid Allie Long, who came over from Washington, and Tobin Heath, a USWNT playmaker that missed most of the 2010 season with an injury. Those three will join USWNT veteran O'Reilly to form what should be a solid midfield. Sky Blue also picked up two other former Beat midfielders, Angie Kerr in a trade and Carolyn Blank as a free agent, as well as draft choice Alyssa Mautz out of Texas A & M.

Perhaps the most important acquisition from Atlanta might be English striker Eni Aluko. One of Sky Blue's biggest problems over the past two years has been scoring and Aluko has proven herself as one of WPS' most exciting attacking players, scoring 15 goals over two seasons. Aluko, Kalmari, and Casey Nogueira, who joins SBFC after spending her rookie season at Chicago, should lead the Sky Blue attack.

It's on defense that Sky Blue has changed the least. Still, with Rampone, Schnur, and Daphne Koster gone, things won't quite be the same. Returnees include Kendall Fletcher, Danielle Johnson, and Brittany Taylor, who had a fine rookie season in 2010. Sky Blue brought back English defender Anita Asante, who they had traded away early in 2010. They also added Carrie Dew from Gold Pride and Michelle Wenino.

Sky Blue's top two keepers are back, Karen Bardsley and Jen Branam. Both suffered injuries last season and their return should help keep the opposition off the scoreboard.

This team never ceases to surprise people, whether it be on the field or off, good or bad. There have been pleasant surprises like the brilliant playoff run that ended with a championship in 2009...and then there was last season. With a fairly new set of talent on board, it will be interesting to see how the 2011 version of Sky Blue performs.