2014 NWSL season preview – Sky Blue FC: Choose your own adventure

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Are a year of experience for a young defense, a steady enough midfield, a pair of rookie strikers and hopes that Kelley O'Hara can finally find her way enough to get Sky Blue past always just barely squeaking by?

You have a very good defense, a serviceable midfield and a striker that scored one of the best goals in league history. You finished the season fourth and were eliminated in the semifinal round of the playoffs. You decide to: trade your star striker, hope you can figure out what to do with Kelley O'Hara, and really, not a whole lot else. Congratulations, you're 2014 Sky Blue FC.

Head Coach: Jim Gabarra, second season (or third, depending on how many leagues you're counting)

Where we left off: Sky Blue finished 2013 with a 10-6-6 record, good enough for fourth, and the pleasure of being promptly eliminated by Western NY in the semifinals.

Duo: Dating back to the inaugural WPS season, Brittany Cameron's middle name may as well have been "Perennial Backup." Cameron played second - or third - fiddle to just about everyone; Karina LeBlanc, Nicole Barnhart, Ashlyn Harris. And she seemed poised to fill that role again in 2013 with Sky Blue, who had N.J. native and U.S. allocation Jill Loyden as the obvious choice for no. 1 keeper. Except Loyden broke her hand before the season started, Cameron fell into the starting role, and then just kind of kept it. When Loyden got healthy, Jim Gabarra tried using the two in tandem, but Sky Blue's defense never looked quite as comfortable in front of Loyden as they had in front of Cameron. A season later, Gabbara has quite the quandary, with both healthy and fighting for that starting role. Platooning players may work well in baseball, but with a goalkeeper? Maybe? Probably not. We might be about to find out.

The tallest, oldest, youngest brick wall: Cameron may have earned eight clean sheets a season ago, and she certainly deserves credit for that, but so do the four players in front of her. Defensively, the 2013 version of Sky Blue was really, surprisingly, good. The ageless Christie Rampone anchored a line that also included then-rookies CoCo Goodson, Kendall Johnson and Caitlin Foord. All four of them are back. You still haven't heard of them. Goodson is still a giant. Johnson's name is still going to be announced sometimes maybe as Kendall Jackson, which actually tells you more about the person doing the announcing than the player, but alas... Foord is still a teenager, although she's 19 now because that's how calendars work. Christie Rampone is still Christie Rampone. They are still going to be very good, with one notable exception: when you take one of them away they might not still be very bad. When Rampone missed time, or when Foord missed the tail end of the season with an injury, the whole thing fell apart. This was a machine that needed all of its parts to work - and when it didn't work, it didn't work spectacularly. Now Sky Blue has added Cami Levin to an otherwise unchanged defensive corps. Levin brings some experience as a member of the U.S. U-20 and U-23 teams and has also played professionally in Sweden and Australia. Goodson, Johnson and Foord have a year together under their belts and the still very young Foord in particular has had a season to adjust to the speed of play in NWSL.

Oh, we're going to try this semi-obscure international thing again?: Sky Blue's second-leading scorer and earner of a silly red card from 2013, Sophie Schmidt, returns to New Jersey. As do Taylor Lytle, Ashley Nick and Katy Freels. Lytle scored four goals a year ago, mostly coming off the bench, while Freels was a mainstay in the starting lineup and Nick joined the team too late in the season to have much of an impact either way. Another midfield mainstay, Manya Makoski, retired after the 2013 season, and Sky Blue added Japan international Nanase Kiryu. Kiryu has only six caps with the Japan WNT, but 127 appearances and 40 goals for Japanese club NTV Beleza. Over the years, Sky Blue has accumulated an arm's-length list of random internationals who came to New Jersey only to promptly to forget how to play soccer, and a finger's-length list of ones who actually made a positive impact. This is going to be fun. Or a disaster.

Wait, you did what now with Lisa De Vanna?: Oh, traded her to Boston for a 2015 draft pick and an international spot that maybe you shouldn't use because didn't we just talk about how these things almost never work out? Sure. Without De Vanna, Sky Blue now has an attack that includes rookies Maya Hayes and Jonelle Filigno and the returning Monica Ocampo. Hayes, a New Jersey native, scored 71 goals in 89 matches for Penn State and made 42 appearances for the U.S. U-20s, scoring 16 times. Filigno, a newly allocated Canadian international, has 10 goals in 56 appearances for her country. She also returns to the place where she played her college soccer, which once worked out super-well for Carli Lloyd (except it didn't, because Lloyd's time with WPS-era Sky Blue at Yurcak Field included a broken ankle and returning from that injury only to earn a suspension for yellow card accumulation). That leaves a lot of the offensive weight on Ocampo, who had a breakout year in 2013, leading the team in scoring with eight goals, despite not being a regular starter and making just 16 appearances.

If Ocampo's 2013 was just a fluke, Sky Blue could be in serious trouble offensively. There's also Kelley O'Hara, who's stuck in some kind of strange Choose Your Own Adventure situation with Jim Gabarra and whoever's going to be the next USWNT coach doing the choosing. O'Hara missed the second half of the 2013 season with an injury, but did manage to make 12 appearances for Sky Blue that are mostly forgettable even with the three assists because no one could ever decide if she was a forward or a defender.

In conclusion: The biggest problem for Sky Blue may be deciding whether "U.S. allocated player" and "starter" are really synonyms, especially in the case of O'Hara. Even before her injury, O'Hara never really looked comfortable in New Jersey - either as a forward or a defender. She - and Gabarra - will have to figure out where she fits into a team that's largely unchanged from a season ago, or if she even fits at all.

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