Paint the town blue: Sky Blue FC season preview

Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE

Kelley O'Hara is Sky Blue's biggest star, but she's not the only reason that the New Jersey outfit looks ready to contend for a title in NWSL's inaugural season.

Following the announcement of national team player allocations in January, it was believed that the Portland Thorns would be the guaranteed league champions due to the allocation of star forwards Alex Morgan and Christine Sinclair. However, this guarantee might expire now that Sky Blue has formed an extremely well-balanced squad with Kelley O’Hara at the helm of the front-line.

Sky Blue will likely use a 4-3-3 formation during their opening week matches for the inaugural NWSL season. This formation has proved effective for the squad as they applied it to their first pre-season match against St.John's University where the squad won in a 5-0 victory with Kendall Johnson and Katy Frierson netted two goals each. The formation is well-suited to highlight the skills of their players, and will let them control the midfield against teams who play 4-4-2.

Sky Blue has been anything but predictable during the early stages of the NWSL. In their pre-season match against Boston, they demonstrated their capriciousness by replacing Lisa De Vanna with midfielder Taylor Lytle, an effective move that pushed O'Hara forward. The team had some kinks to work out, but they have plenty of depth and should have a strong group of substitutes behind their starting XI.

The Goalkeepers

Before the announcement that Sky Blue was signing Brittany Cameron, the team suffered an unfortunate knock to their GK roster. In early March during the USWNT’s Algarve Cup campaign Jill Loyden broke her hand. The injury will see Loyden out of action for three months. However, Sky Blue is one of three teams that took a calculated approach to reserving a strong goalkeeping lineup for their roster. The remaining two goalkeepers are talented, and diverse. Ashley Baker has played for England youth national teams, while Cameron is a veteran in professional soccer with a WPS championship under her belt.

During the 2010 WPS season as a Chicago Red Star, Loyden logged six shutouts and recorded a 1.17 GAA. In that same season, Solo recorded a 1.64 GAA.

Loyden might not suit up for the first half of the inaugural NWSL season but she is still an incredible athlete and contributing member of the Sky Blue team. She's a veteran of professional soccer and has competed in the WPS as a member of St. Louis Athletica, Chicago Red Stars and MagicJack. She is also an underrated player in women’s soccer. She hasn't played a great deal for the U.S. National Team, but that's only because of the presence of Hope Solo. Loyden, a Press Player of the Year in 2002, developed a strong reputation in college starting in all 62 games of her career and recording 25 shutouts. She was named the Big East Conference Goalkeeper of the Year three times and only allowed 46 goals throughout her entire college career. Loyden has also been praised by USWNT goalkeeping coach Paul Rogers for having quick feet and hands. During the 2010 WPS season as a Chicago Red Star, Loyden logged six shutouts and recorded a 1.17 GAA. In that same season, Solo recorded a 1.64 GAA.

While Loyden is recovering, Sky Blue made it obvious that Cameron would start for the team by starting her in both pre-season matches against the Breakers and St. John’s University. The decision to start Cameron is wise but to start her for both pre-season matches is questionable. The objective of setting up pre-season matches is to observe your full team in action and determine a starting squad. Strategically, the team could have deployed Baker and Cameron to play in each game, rather than stick with Cameron for both games. Baker only appeared in the game against St. John's, as a substitute

Baker is a standout athlete with great technical abilities. During her college career for the Georgia Bulldogs, Baker logged 20 shutouts and recorded 305 saves. While most collegiate GKs lack experience on a national/professional level, Baker has played for the England Under-23 team and is certainly a diamond in the rough for Sky Blue.

The magic Cameron brings when in net is what builds her intimidation tactic. She has the ability to leap a great distance sideways to thwart incoming shots. Additionally, when Cameron stretches her wingspan upward, she reaches past the crossbar which is assuring when defending against tall headers or powerful strikes at goal.

Recently Cameron has coached college keepers from Dartmouth, Niagara University and USD. Her coaching at Dartmouth made an impact on their goalkeeper Tatiana Saunders as she earned herself a spot on the second team NSCAA All Mid-Atlantic Region. In addition, Cameron already has a WPS championship under her belt following her successful season with FC Gold Pride. She played for the University of San Diego creating an impressive resume for herself. During her freshmen year she recorded a lackluster 1.84 GAA but would soon improve on that stat throughout her college career. In her sophomore year she improved upon her goals against average with a 1.21, and finally in her senior year she recorded a 0.75 GAA.

Baker and Cameron are ideal keepers and can easily stop shots that are directed to the top corners of the net, or headers coming in from the box. Up against big strikers like Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach, their athleticism and command of their area will be key.

The Defenders

The defenders for Sky Blue are epic to say the least, and fit into their 4-3-3 formation. Kendall Johnson is expected to slot in as the starting left back. She's naturally left-footed and should be more comfortable in that spot and a better crosser than some of the league's right-footed left backs. Recently she completed her collegiate career at the University of Portland as a decorated player. An injury curbed her 2011 season, but she relegated and gave her best ever performance for her senior year in 2012. Unaffected by the injury she would progress to earn WCC Defender of the Year, and start every game of the season in the left back position. During her senior campaign she contributed to her team’s eight shutouts and recorded two goals, and four assists – these stats can only feed into the admiration that Sky Blue has for obtaining Johnson as a defender.

The fastest member of the USWNT and a returning member of the Sky Blue team is Christie Rampone. The 2009 Sportswoman of the Year will be responsible for controlling the backline as a center back. Rampone is a veteran of the sport and has already developed an assertive style of play. She is an unyielding force that does not shy away from one-on-one duels. Rampone has dedicated a great deal of committment to Sky Blue and is beloved by fans due to her contribution to the squad's WPS championship title win in 2009. Rampone serves as an active player on the field, and a co-coach for the squad.

Madeleine Thompson is primed to compete for a starting center back position. In early November when Stanford played Idaho State, Thompson was credited with an assist that propelled the team to remain atop the scoreboard as they completed the game with a 3-0 victory. During her days as a Cardinal she rotated between central defender and midfielder. She is only credited with two assists however both assists came during the crucial late stages of the season for Stanford. In 2011 in a game against Florida State, Thompson lifted Stanford into a victory when she was subbed in to the match and lobbed a pass to teammate Alina Garciamendez who found the back of the net.

Competing with Thompson for a starting spot alongside Rampone will be Coco Goodson. Goodson replaced Caitlin Foord during the Boston pre-season match. Despite that, it's likely that they will both start in competitive games. Goodson was selected 13th overall by the Philadelphia Independence in the 2012 WPS draft. After the WPS folded, Goodson played with FC Twente, a Dutch club. In her collegiate career for UC Irvine, she was a two-time Big West Defender of the Year recipient. In 2010 she made a huge impact as she started in 23 matches and recorded nine goals and five game-winning goals. In the same year she assisted in the Anteaters in posting 11 shutouts. During her senior campaign with UC Irvine she led them to a 19-game winning streak and a Big West Conference title during a perfect regular season.

Lindsi Cutshall and Foord are both strong contenders to start the season at right back. Cutshall is another defender in the group that has been credited with a hefty amount of goals during her collegiate career. She played for Brigham Young and netted 13 goals with six assists. Cutshall is a game changer as she led her back line to only concede four goals during their campaign in the 2012 West Coast Conference. In addition, Cutshall led BYU to their first appearance in the Elite Eight in nine years. She will be a frustrating defender to defeat for any striker or midfield player.

[Foord] is a sight that needs to be seen in order to be believed as she has incredible pace on the ball.

Foord, an Australian National Team member, was named the best young player in the W-League in 2011. Foord is a talented right back who is quick on her feet. She controls her speed when on the ball without losing focus on her footwork. She has much to offer the right back role, Foord has played for the W-League clubs since 2010 as a member of the Central Coast Mariners and Sydney FC. During the 2010/11 season as a right back for Sydney FC, Foord won the Westfield W-League premiership title. She is a sight that needs to be seen in order to be believed as she has incredible pace on the ball.

During the Blues pre-season game against Boston, Melanie Booth came on for Thompson. She should see some time this season, but Goodson's size should keep her ahead of Booth in the pecking order to start the year. Regardless, Booth is a good player but her fitness might not allow her to play an entire 90 minute match effectively as she could for 45 minutes. She has received minimal playing time with the Canadian national team, and was rarely seen playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps. If the NWSL is Booth’s only chance to demonstrate her skills in order to obtain caps for Canada then she should be allotted some time on the field, but will likely not gain a full 90-minute position. If Booth is to be subbed on she should only play center back, the trepidation of placing her in a physically demanding position such as left or right back might be too much of a risk for the team during a crucial game.

The Midfielders

A particular appeal to this formation is that any attacking lineup produced by the opposition would have a difficult task to break through the midfield. The players that are likely to anchor this formation from the midfield are Brittany Bock and Sophie Schmidt, along with Katy Frierson or Manya Makoski. These athletes are gifted with strength not only in running, but reading plays. They would grant an entrance into the opponents half and create goal scoring opportunities. The contribution of Bock, behind a couple of box-to-box midfielders, will provide SBFC with great attacking and defending potential.

Bock should anchor the midfield and provide the link between the defense and the players in front of her. At the University of Notre Dame, Bock played a midfield and forward role. She entered the school’s history books by scoring 46 goals and 29 assists. Upon her arrival to the 2009 WPS season, Bock was selected fifth overall by the Los Angeles Sol. She played defense and contributed to the team only conceding 10 goals during their first season. Bock would win her first WPS championship during her stint with the Western New York Flash. In addition to her collegiate and professional career, Bock has also played for the United States National team as a member of the under-20 team. She demonstrated during her college days that she is a strong midfield member that can assist in defending and contribute goals to the team. As a member of the Sky Blue squad she would be asset to start in the central defensive midfield role and might even acquire the nickname Bock the Rock.

Having Bock closer to the defenders centrally will help to close what would normally be a large gap between the midfielders and the defenders. This would give Bock a greater duty in her position to act as an extension of the defensive line.

Schmidt should occupy one starting midfield role, and keeps improving her game as she clocks more appearances for the Canadian national team.She's a zealous athlete that is persistent in her determination to succeed as a player and to contribute to her team. Her fortitude could not be missed during the Olympics as she acted on every opportunity to score, and she registered two shots on target in the semifinal against the United States. A player like Schmidt is vital for a team because she will ensure that all tasks are met on the field. As a midfielder, she needs to be alert of every play being formed by the opposing team.

This lineup boasts two great candidates for a starting role next to Schmidt. Frierson and Makoski are great attacking players and it will require a few matches into the season in order to determine which player will sustain the position as a starter, but Frierson looks like the early favorite.

Freirson is a talented midfielder who joins the Sky Blue ranks after a year in WPS and a great career at Auburn University. A Hermann Trophy semi-finalist who was been selected for three consecutive seasons as First Team All-SEC, Frierson brings a great deal of enthusiasm to the field. She had a valiant senior year as she started in all 21 matches, and led the SEC team with eight goals and 12 assists. In 2011, the Tigers won the SEC Tournament Championship with Frierson’s contributions. In 65 appearances for Auburn, she recorded 22 goals and 29 assists. She concluded her collegiate career by being awarded several honors including breaking the school records for game-winning goals with 11 and the most assists in a season with 13. Her professional career began after she was picked tenth overall in the 2012 WPS Draft. Western New York Flash acquired her in the draft, and she played one season with the club.

Under Makoski's name one could find three Nordic Cup championships, and an impressive professional soccer career with the Los Angeles Sol, Atlanta Beat Finnish team Aland United, where she was captain. Makoski will be a perfect fit as the most advanced midfielder in a midfield three due to her high scoring abilities on the field during her time with Aland United (31 goals in 26 appearances). If Makoski can present strong communication skills with the strikers, then they should rack up numerous points for the team.

One more midfielder could play their way into the mix for Sky Blue. Taylor Lytle was a midfielder for Texas Tech in college, and revolutionized their soccer program during her campaign. As the first ever Raider in Texas Tech history to be named to the 2009 All-Big 12 First Team, the team has since sent four of their 2012 season players to join the All-Big 12 First Team. Taylor completed her college career with 27 assists, 14 goals and 67 starts. In mid-April of 2012, Lytle agreed to terms to play with United Soccer W-League club Pali Blues. Lytle is talented and very good on the ball; she has the ability to be aggressive on the field while maintaining a cool head in order to avoid committing too many fouls.

The Forwards

The forwards that have been assembled for the 2013 Sky Blue FC roster are talented and well-rounded individuals, each with their own unique style. In any formation used by Sky Blue, these forwards would be valuable assets.

A player that stands out is the 2006 FIFA Under-20 World Championship Bronze Ball winner, Danesha Adams. She creates scoring opportunities not only for herself but for her teammates as well. Her collaborator attributes shined during her stint with the Philadelphia Independence in 2010, as she teamed up with fellow teammate Amy Rodriguez in two matches to create three goals which led the Independence to the WPS championship final. Adams has extremely quick feet, and opposing midfielders will want to cut off supply to her before she has a chance to run at defenders.

Gabarra deserves praise for playing O'Hara as a forward, where she's looked nearly unstoppable.

Adding to the powerful front line is Lisa De Vanna. A powerful force on the field, she will become a staple player for Sky Blue. De Vanna, who scored for Australia against the USWNT on September 19, takes advantage of every opportunity she receives, regardless of what players are around her. De Vanna has demonstrated that she can outrun the fastest players and finish with composure, time and again, and she'll be a vital asset for Sky Blue.

Determining what on-field position Kelley O'Hara would be allocated was more confusing than the entire Memento film and season finale of Alf combined. Initially when I began thinking about writing these articles critiquing the team’s possible formations, I assumed that I knew where each player would be allocated on the field. However, when SBFC commenced their first pre-season match against St. John’s I was clearly wrong in my assumption. Many fans of the NWSL assumed that O'Hara would retain her national team allocated position as an outside back for Sky Blue because (one can only assume) the team would take into consideration the possibility that having O’Hara train for two separate positions might negatively impact her performance for both positions. However, those who believe that are clearly underestimating O’Hara. Gabarra deserves praise for playing O'Hara as a forward, where she's looked nearly unstoppable. If at any point in the season they need O'Hara as a fullback, they would create the most intimidating back line in the entire league.

O'Hara has transitioned from being a forward, to a midfielder, to a defender and back to being a forward again during her career. She can effortlessly maneuver the flanks and volley a cross into the penalty box just as well as she can defend or score. Her last 12 months have been spectacular, as she's played a key role in Olympics and Algarve Cup wins.

In order to understand why O’Hara is likely to play a more advanced role than she has been recently, her Stanford career is a good indicator. She completed her collegiate career with an outstanding 57 goals (26 of those came during her senior year) and 32 assists. It is no surprise that Gabarra wanted O’Hara playing up top. She wasn't exactly a slouch in more advanced positions in WPS either. In 2010 she joined FC Gold Pride after they survived a lackluster 2009 season with prolific goal scorer Christine Sinclair. Immediately after O’Hara joined the club, their luck began to change. With the Pride she would go on to play in 19 matches and net six goals, helping them to win the 2010 WPS Championship. Following her stint with the Pride, O’Hara moved to the Boston Breakers for the following year. In 13 appearances, O’Hara scored 4 goals.

The basic message sent out by head coach Jim Gabarra this preseason has been that the positions that his players have played in the past do not predetermine the positions they will play in the upcoming NWSL season. So far, in preseason matches, his tactics have appeared effective.

If you are a fan of the Sky Blue FC, then after this season, the term 'feeling blue' will no longer mean unwell. They're a serious championship contender in NWSL's inaugural season.

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