April 6, 2011

2011 Sky Blue FC Preview

Sky Blue FC
Jim Gabarra (1st year at Sky Blue, 3rd year in WPS)
2010 Record:
7-10-7 (5th place)
Home Stadium:
Yurcak Field (Piscataway, NJ)


Goalkeepers (4):
Kristin Arnold(R), Karen Bardsley, Jenni Branam, Erin Guthrie.
Defenders (8):
Anita Asante, Kiersten Dallstream, Carrie Dew, Kendall Fletcher, Danielle Johnson, Lindsey Johnson(R), Brittany Taylor, Michelle Wenino.
Midfielders (7):
Carolyn Blank, Tobin Heath, Angie Kerr, Allie Long, Alyssa Mautz(R), Heather O’Reilly, Therese Sjögran.
Forwards (4):
Eniola Aluko, Laura Kalmari, Andrea Martin Santamaria, Casey Nogueira.
(R) denotes true rookie; returning players in bold.
Probable World Cup players:
Bardsley, Asante, Heath, O’Reilly, Sjögran, Aluko.

High expectations often lead to disappointment and that’s what happened last season with Sky Blue. The defending champions failed to make the playoffs, falling to 5th place. To be sure, injuries had a lot to do with their lackluster season. Perhaps because of last year’s finish, Sky Blue had a substantial turnover on their roster in the offseason. Only eight players return from 2010 and only two players from the midfield forward.

One problem Sky Blue has had for both seasons was scoring goals. They hope to have rectified this offensive shortage with a blockbuster trade and several free agent signings. The trade that brought Eni Aluko, Tobin Heath, and Angie Kerr from Atlanta should pay dividends for a team that scored just 20 goals in 24 matches during the 2010 season, tied for the lowest total in WPS.

Jim Gabarra comes over from Washington for his third year as a WPS coach. He has a lot of talent on this Sky Blue team. The trick will be getting them to play as a cohesive unit, especially early in the season. The preseason tournament in Turkey should help in that regard.

Goalkeepers: Sky Blue had a rash of injuries last season and no position was harder hit than goalkeeper. SBFC lost not one, but two starters to injury. Both Karen Bardsley and Jen Branam are back for a third season with Sky Blue.

Bardsley’s stock continues to rise, both because of her brilliant start in 2010 and her more frequent starts with the English National Team. She was the keeper of choice when Hope Powell’s Lions faced the US in a recent friendly. Bardsley recorded five shutouts before she was injured while training for the WPS All-Star match last June. She has a huge advantage over Branam in height and now, in international experience.

Branam, on the other hand, led Sky Blue to the 2009 championship. While she is one of the shortest keepers in the league, she is also one of the most aggressive, often fearless while traveling well out of the penalty area to thwart potential threats. She will certainly see a lot of action when Bardsley travels to Germany with her English teammates. Rookie Kristin Arnold and Erin Guthrie, who spent 2010 as Gold Pride’s third goalkeeper, will battle for the third spot on Sky Blue.

Defenders: Gone are starters Meghan Schnur, Christie Rampone, Daphne Koster, and Keeley Dowling, losses that would cripple most teams. Still, Sky Blue returns four defenders from 2010, plus Anita Asante who returns to New Jersey after making three stops in between. Her experience should pay off on what is otherwise a fairly youthful back line.

Probably the most prominent among the returning players is Brittany Taylor, who had a strong rookie season in 2010. Taylor showed an ability to defend one-on-one against some of the best strikers the league had to offer. Kendall Fletcher, Danielle Johnson, and Kiersten Dallstream also return. Fletcher can also play defensive mid, a position she looked very good at while in Saint Louis. Dallstream has great speed and can also play striker.

Rounding out the defensive group are Carrie Dew, picked up from Gold Pride, Lindsey Johnson, and Michelle Wenino. The question is can this squad can stand up to the pressure they are likely to face against the best attacking teams in this league.

Midfielders: Only Heather O’Reilly returns in the midfield for Sky Blue. Still only 26 years old, it seems as though O’Reilly has been on the national scene forever, earning 141 caps for the USWNT. She has scored three goals and eight assists over two WPS campaigns.

While the rest of the midfield has changed, it is certainly not lacking in talent. Sky Blue was able to secure a loan agreement for Therese Sjögran, a veteran of the Damallsvenskan and the Swedish National Team. Her all around play, leadership, and experience may well be what this team needs. She will be joined in the middle by the number one overall pick in the 2010 draft, Tobin Heath. Heath missed most of 2010 with injuries, but 2011 seems to be starting out on the right foot with her making several national team appearances.

Another key addition to Sky Blue is former Freedom attacking mid Allie Long. Long has four career WPS goals and has matured as a player a great deal from the 21-year old that took the field for the Freedom in 2009. Two refugees from the Beat, Carolyn Blank and Angie Kerr, also join SBFC. Blank showed potential at defensive mid last season. Kerr, once a national team player, generally plays outside and passes the ball with great accuracy. Rookie Alyssa Mautz out of Texas A & M also joins the team and has a great deal of offensive potential.

Forwards: It’s not surprising, given Sky Blue’s difficulty in putting the ball in the net, that the team decided to go in another direction for 2011. The only returning forward is Laura Kalmari, who tied for the team lead in goals with five. One of the things I like best about Kalmari is that she always seems to put herself in good position to receive passes and score goals, which is sometimes one of the hardest things for a forward to learn. She already appears to be in midseason form, scoring a hat track against Rutgers in a recent exhibition game.

The biggest addition at forward is English striker Eniola Aluko. Aluko was virtually gifted to Sky Blue by Atlanta, the team with whom she finished 2010. Aluko has an impressive track record, 15 goals in two WPS seasons and 11 goals for England. She is very fast, sometimes too fast for AR’s in my opinion. She will lead the WPS in offside calls, but she is one of the league’s most exciting players.

The other two additions to Sky Blue have international experience as well. Spanish striker Adriana joins SBFC, coming off of an excellent run in UEFA World Cup qualifying. She scored 16 goals in just eight qualifying matches, including one against England last June. The other forward is Casey Nogueira, who spent her rookie season with Chicago. There has never been much doubt about Nogueira’s talent, only her consistency. She had a knack for scoring big goals on the college level and added a spark for the Red Stars a few times last season.

Outlook: One of the things that has to improve this season is scoring. Twenty goals in 24 matches, with two being penalties and another being an own goal, is just not enough. Sky Blue brought in the players to correct that problem. With Sjögran and Heath controlling the middle and more attacking options available, this team should score some goals. Aluko has great speed and her presence alone, should occupy opposing defenses.

The other problem for Sky Blue is protecting their own goal. While Bardsley and Branam are both capable keepers, they will not survive the onslaught of shots that Sky Blue faced last season for very long. Game in, game out for a good part of the 2010 season, Sky Blue was outshot two to one, often worse. With the defensive turnover that this team is facing, one wonders if they can protect Bardsley and Branam enough to give the offense a chance to win games.

Sky Blue is a team that must control possession and the midfield in order to be successful, which of course is true of most teams. The tendency with a speed burner like Aluko is to play kick and run long ball tactics, but I think Gabarra will keep his team from falling into that trap. The key will be how quickly Sky Blue can become familiar with one another before we see a sharp, crisp passing game that they need, especially since the team will lose much of its midfield to the World Cup.