On Wednesday night, Sky Blue FC will play one of the biggest games in its history: Carli Lloyd’s first with the club since helping the U.S. women’s soccer team win a second straight World Cup.
Lloyd will be joined on the field by teammates including Nahomi Kawasumi, who won the 2011 World Cup with Japan. The opposing Washington Spirit are led by U.S. stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh, and a rising star in Andi Sullivan.
Beyond the field, though, the scene will not be glamorous. Rutgers’ Yurcak Field, Sky Blue’s home for a decade, is a 5,000-seat stadium with one stand, no showers inside the locker rooms and no beer inside the gates. And if you’d like to get there by train, good luck: the closest station, New Jersey Transit’s New Brunswick stop, is three miles away.
Put all of that together and it’s little surprise that Sky Blue has had the NWSL’s worst attendance for two straight years: 2,531 fans per game in 2018 and just 1,501 per game so far this season.
Just about everyone who goes to Yurcak regularly is fed up with the place. It was tolerable back when professional women’s soccer was a small-time business concern. But these days, with the NWSL’s talent level and commercial potential at all-time highs, the facility is unacceptable.
Sky Blue interim general manager Alyse LaHue is fed up, too. In a recent interview with The Inquirer, LaHue made it clear that the team intends to leave Yurcak at the end of this season.
“We’ve seen other teams continue to up their professional standards, and Sky Blue has to follow suit,” LaHue said. “We’ve grown out of a college environment at this point. Rutgers has been a great partner to us through the years, but it just doesn’t have some of the amenities that other professional venues have."
LaHue is the public face of the club’s front office, but she isn’t the brass’ most famous name. That honor belongs to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a co-owner of Sky Blue along with former Bed, Bath & Beyond CEO Steven Temares. Gov. Murphy’s wife, Tammy, has taken a role in the club’s operations this year after former GM Tony Novo was fired in early April.
LaHue said ownership is “fully committed to pushing that forward and providing the resources that we need," and said she has taken the lead on the stadium search.
“I don’t think anybody else is going to put as much pressure on me as I’ll put on myself to push this forward," she said. “Right now it’s my job to make sure that I look for the best venue and continue to up the standard. These players deserve that.”
Wanting to leave is the easy part, though. Finding a new home could prove quite hard, and there have been no hints at all about what’s on the table.
Sky Blue’s New Jersey-based core fans dream of going to Red Bull Arena, the New York Red Bulls’ home that’s right near the PATH station in Harrison, N.J. LaHue has already tried to arrange a doubleheader with the Red Bulls, to no avail.
The venue would surely cost a lot to rent, and even a crowd in the high four figures could look lost in the 25,000 seats. (The Red Bulls can’t even sell it out these days; there are tarps over a big swath of the upper deck.)
Where else could Sky Blue go? Any outsider’s guess counts. The closest suitable venue might be the 5,000-seat soccer stadium at Montclair State that’s home to the Red Bulls’ minor-league USL team. It was upgraded this year, and is a short walk from a New Jersey Transit stop. But the train doesn’t run on weekends, and the field is artificial turf, which might not sit well. (Yurcak’s best asset is a well-kept grass pitch.)
How about crossing the Hudson? Columbia has a 17,000-seat football stadium (albeit with turf and permanent gridiron lines) at the northern tip of Manhattan, on the subway and near well-heeled Westchester County. Moving there might get the attention of New York City FC’s owners at England’s Manchester City, where the women’s team is a European power. Insiders around women’s soccer have been waiting for City Football Group to buy into the NWSL, and Sky Blue already has the right colors.
What of looking south to Talen Energy Stadium? It’s unlikely, and not just because the NWSL would lose what scraps of the New York market it has. But there hasn’t been a hard “no” yet.
This much is certain: the entire NWSL is paying attention.
Yael Averbuch West, executive director of the NWSL Players Association, told The Inquirer that “everybody who’s on the real inside of [Sky Blue] knows that it can and should be so much more than what it is, and that the current state isn’t good enough. It’s a work in progress, and a lot of progress needs to be made."
A former player in the league, the New Jersey-born West began her pro career at Sky Blue in 2009, when the team played in Women’s Professional Soccer. She has known the club’s ownership ever since, and said she’s had “very close contact with Sky Blue this year from the ownership group to management to the players” — including a preseason meeting with Tammy Murphy.
NWSL president Amanda Duffy has also been directly involved from the league office. But her involvement has a major limit: the league will not spend from its coffers to help Sky Blue rent at a new home.
“The venue is an expense of a local operator,” she said. “As we look at the investment and the broader expectations and standards, I think there will be several areas that would require additional investment from operators, and venue may be one of them.”