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Sky Blue FC, NWSL executives grilled on New Jersey club’s struggles as draft picks threaten to not play there

While the spotlight shone on the prospects chosen in the National Women’s Soccer League draft, just down the hall the heat was turned up on Sky Blue FC.

Sky Blue FC president and general manager Tony Novo.
Sky Blue FC president and general manager Tony Novo.Read moreJonathan Tannenwald / Staff file photo (custom credit)

CHICAGO — While the spotlight shone Thursday on this year’s National Women’s Soccer League draft class, elsewhere in the hall the heat was turned up on Sky Blue FC.

The central New Jersey-based club still hasn’t escaped the shadow of last year’s bombshell investigative reports on the club’s substandard training facilities and housing arrangements for players.

One of Sky Blue’s marquee first-round picks, University of North Carolina defender Julia Ashley — a northern New Jersey native, by the way — told reporters after she was selected: “I’m not positive of what I want to do in regards to if I’m going to stay or go abroad. I have to explore those options. I’ve been talking to my agent about possibly France, Sweden or Germany. I’m not sure yet.”

After the draft, Sky Blue president and general manager Tony Novo said he’s “very confident” that the club will get Ashley on board.

A few hours later, Equalizer Soccer reported that Sky Blue’s biggest prize of the day, UCLA and U.S. women’s youth national team defender Hailie Mace, does not intend to report to the club. Novo acknowledged “there are challenges” with Mace, the No. 2 overall pick, and acknowledged they’ve been caused by the club’s off-the-field troubles.

“I think she will be here once we talk to her and get past some of the negativity that we’ve had,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that we have to overcome, and a lot of things that we’re going to have to improve — housing, training facilities, all of the above — and I think those are concerns that anybody has. And we’re trying to eliminate some of those concerns.”

At one point in his remarks, Novo turned quite terse. He challenged the accuracy of those reports last year, and did so knowing that some of those reports' authors were standing right in front of him.

“There was a lot that was said and portrayed about Sky Blue FC and the conditions that was not true,” he said. “Just report the truth, please. We do need to make some improvements, and we will make some improvements."

There might not be many improvements made to Sky Blue’s stadium, though. The team plays its home games at Rutgers University’s Yurcak Field, and there’s neither the money nor the physical space for significant upgrades. Yurcak’s capacity is 5,000, all in one stand with metal bleachers. The locker rooms don’t have showers and other amenities that are a matter of course at most pro sports venues.

While the capacity and natural grass playing surface meet the standards laid out by the U.S. Soccer Federation and NWSL, the locker rooms do not.

Novo said the team uses showers at another Rutgers athletic facility that’s walking distance from the soccer stadium. He didn’t give any more detail than that, but he conceded that “for this year, that doesn’t meet standards.”

As for the housing issue, this year the NWSL doubled the allowances teams can spend on helping players with accommodations. Novo said that will be especially helpful to Sky Blue given the high housing costs across northern New Jersey. The team also uses host families for a few players. Novo said that might be necessary again this year, and that some rookies in New Jersey might live at their families' homes.

“We’re going to try to do as few host families as possible, as many apartments or team-paid housing [arrangements] as possible,” he said.

NWSL managing director Amanda Duffy, effectively the league’s commissioner, said the league office has been pushing Sky Blue to step up. It’s no secret that other NWSL team owners have been leaning on Sky Blue as well.

“We’re working with their ownership and have been for some time on the steps that need to be taken for that organization to show progress in areas that the league believes it should show progress in,” Duffy said. “There are steps that are being taken. ... We’ll continue to work with the Sky Blue ownership to make sure they move in the right direction.”