The truest sign of Sky Blue FC’s progress in the NWSL Challenge Cup didn’t come until the very end.

Its first-round win over Houston was impressive, and the penalty-shootout upset of Washington was memorable. But the ultimate proof that this team is different from its predecessors came in the last half hour of Wednesday’s 3-2 semifinal loss to Chicago.

Past editions of the team might not have mounted the stirring late comeback that this year’s players did after Chicago’s Savannah McCaskill made it 3-0.

This is, after all, an organization that lost 31 of its 48 games across 2018 and 2019, and won just six. Sky Blue hasn’t finished above .500 since 2014, and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013 — the NWSL’s inaugural season. That much losing takes a toll.

“People don’t understand, unless you’ve been in the situation, how much it takes mentally and emotionally to come back when you’re down 3-0,” said Margaret Purce, who sparked the second goal with an electric charge down the right flank. “I have a lot of pride in this group. I think that we kept our composure, I think that we kept going strong, I think everyone was giving 100%, and I can’t ask more than that.”

Inside the lines, manager Freya Coombe has a defined tactical philosophy, and it has started to bear fruit. Her use of wingers as outside backs (especially Imani Dorsey and Purce) has been controversial, but there is proof now that it’s working.

“I think what we did today shows a lot about what’s going on inside of our culture,” McCall Zerboni said after the game, and she knows better than almost anyone. Zerboni delivered some of those losses while a stalwart of the North Carolina Courage’s dynasty, and has brought Sky Blue leadership the likes of which it’s rarely had — especially with Carli Lloyd out injured.

“The way that we didn’t doubt, we believed, we came back, we fought — that’s just letting a little light into what’s going on here, and the progress we’re making, and what these players are doing,” Zerboni said. “Our club is changing, our style of play is changing, our philosophy is changing, our quality is changing.”

Sky Blue FC midfielder McCall Zerboni on the ball during the July 13 game against the North Carolina Courage, her former team.
Ashley Intile / Sky Blue FC
Sky Blue FC midfielder McCall Zerboni on the ball during the July 13 game against the North Carolina Courage, her former team.

We may never know what the full potential of this team this year would have been. The Washington Post reported Tuesday that the league is looking at ways to play more games after the Challenge Cup ends, but there almost certainly won’t be a regular season.

And on Thursday, it became hard to believe there will be anything at all after The Athletic reported U.S. and North Carolina Courage star Sam Mewis has signed a one-year contract with England’s Manchester City, and Rose Lavelle might join her.

On top of that, a few months from now there will likely be an expansion draft for Racing Louisville, which joins the NWSL next year.

So, we can only imagine what Purce would have done making those surging runs down the right flank with Mallory Pugh by her side, feeding Lloyd service to pound into the net. Or how Caprice Dydasco would have played alongside Gina Lewandowsi on the back line.

Sky Blue might not have been a finalist with Pugh, Lloyd, and Dydasco healthy instead of injured, but a fully-loaded lineup would have been one of the tournament’s most intriguing.

We do know goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is a star. Whenever national teams resume playing, she should get a call to add to her meager eight caps for Canada over the last five years.

Sabrina Flores was terrific at left back, and while Purce may still be a better forward than a right back, she has said repeatedly that she’s embracing her new role even if fans aren’t.

In the midfield, Jennifer Cudjoe was a revelation, earning a starting spot only a few months after making the roster through an open tryout. Expect to see much more of the 26-year-old Ghanaian in the future.

Up front, rookie forward Evelyne Viens has potential — and Canada might want to call her up too. The Quebec City native has never been part of the country’s national team system despite scoring 73 goals as a collegian at South Florida, including 25 in 20 games as a senior. She found the net for the first time as a pro Wednesday.

If general manager Alyse LaHue can keep her team’s spine together, Sky Blue will enter 2021 with real potential to end its playoff drought. It will be a while until then, but the results might just be worth waiting for.

Potential 2021 Sky Blue FC starting lineup

Forwards: Nahomi Kawasumi, Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh

Midfielders: Jennifer Cudjoe, Sarah Woldmoe, McCall Zerboni

Defenders: Sabrina Flores, Gina Lewandowski, Esetlle Johnson, Margaret Purce

Goalkeeper: Kailen Sheridan