For Sky Blue FC, the waiting has been one of the hardest parts of this summer.
The waiting to play this season at Red Bull Arena, which should have started on April 26 — and now who knows if it will happen at all this year.
The waiting to practice at the Red Bulls’ training facility, which welcomed Sky Blue as a full-time tenant only to see the coronavirus lockdown stop everything until late May.
Even the waiting to unveil a snazzy new jersey, black with lightning bolt-shaped blue stripes, that was finally released Thursday. General manager Alyse LaHue said it was the highest single day of merchandise sales in the team’s history.
Now, finally, the waiting is over. The NWSL Challenge Cup kicked off Saturday in Utah with two games, headlined by the defending champion North Carolina Courage beating the Portland Thorns, 2-1. CBS’ national broadcast of the game included players and coaches from both teams taking a knee during the national anthem and at the opening whistle. The Washington Spirit beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in the late game.
Sky Blue flew west on Saturday afternoon, ahead of their tournament opener Tuesday vs. OL Reign (10 p.m., CBS All Access).
“The day that we were told we would be going into quarantine, [back] then we didn’t think it would be that long — we thought maybe a week, two weeks, you know, and then it turned into a month and then two months,” said centerback Gina Lewandowski, a Lehigh Valley native and Lehigh alum. “The last five weeks [since] we started preseason, we were all just really excited to get out on the field and we kind of feel the excitement creeping in. And of course we’re a little bit nervous as any team is, but there’s a lot of excitement going into the tournament.”
Those nerves are justified. The coronavirus outbreak within the Orlando Pride that forced the team to withdraw from the tournament scared the league — and reports that some of those tests might have been false positives haven’t helped.
“It makes us very aware of how real this virus is and could potentially be if we do not listen to protocols and take the precautions that we need to,” Lewandowski said. “Hearing about that and the extent of possible cases that can occur from maybe one little event, that maybe spooked us a little bit. But it just kind of makes us and everybody else aware that this is actually a real thing, still.”
Fortunately, Sky Blue has been untouched. Lewandowski and LaHue said they’re confident in the league’s rules for keeping players safe at the tournament bubble in suburban Salt Lake City.
“We’ve had a lot of talks with the league, with our Players Association, within our club, with our general manager,” Lewandowski said. “Everyone has been very diligent in following these protocols and really pretty confident in moving forward and taking the steps needed to keep us safe.”
LaHue acknowledged that no plan can be perfect, but she’s “comfortable with all of the detail that has gone into the consideration of this tournament by the league office, by the medical task force, and certainly by folks on the ground in Utah.”
When the tournament was announced, Sky Blue was touted as a dark horse for a good run thanks to the offseason additions of U.S. World Cup winner Mallory Pugh and veterans McCall Zerboni and Margaret Purce. It was easy to imagine Pugh and Purce feeding Carli Lloyd (and scoring some goals of their own), and Zerboni being the general of the midfield.
But those absences present opportunities. In the attack, Ifeoma Onumonu — acquired in an offseason trade with the Reign — moves up the depth chart, as does former Japanese national team stalwart Nahomi Kawasumi.
LaHue and manager Freya Coombe like what they’ve seen from rookie Evelyne Viens, a Quebec native out of the University of South Florida who was the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s draft. Viens leads a rookie class that also include Rutgers defender Chantelle Swaby — who played for Jamaica at last year’s World Cup — and Penn State defender Kaleigh Riehl.
“Freya and I have been looking at each other all week saying how lucky we are that we have the rookies that we do,” LaHue said. “They bring so much professionalism already for the game, and the way they approach things, the way they approach training. We’ve been so impressed with them.”
Zerboni, a three-time NWSL champion in her 11-year pro career, has already made an impact on and off the field.
“She has a higher presence on the field, which is something that we believe that we needed,” LaHue said. “If she sees something that maybe doesn’t look quite right she’s not afraid to round the team up and say so. I think that’s tremendous, and it’s great leadership for us to have.”
That includes Zerboni’s knack for fiery speeches. Some of them have gone viral over the years from games with the North Carolina Courage and the U.S. national team. Lewandowski, who played with Zerboni on the old Western New York Flash in 2011, said there have already been a few this year.
“She picks and chooses, and they come at the right times,” Lewandowski said. “She knows the mentality and how to win. … I was excited to hear that she was coming to the team, because I know what she can bring.”
Although Sky Blue FC moved north to Red Bull Arena after 11 years at Rutgers, the team remains the closest NWSL franchise to Philadelphia. The roster also has quite a few players with some kind of tie to the greater Philadelphia area. Here’s a list of local names to know:
Nicole Baxter: Midfielder, Pennington, N.J. (Pennington H.S.)
Cassidy Benintente: Midfielder, Jackson Twp., N.J. (Jackson Liberty H.S., Rutgers)
Estelle Johnson: Defender, played for the old Philadelphia Independence
Gina Lewandowski: Defender, Coopersburg, Pa. (Allentown Central Catholic H.S., Lehigh)
Carli Lloyd: Forward/midfielder, Delran, N.J. (Delran H.S., Rutgers; out injured)
Kaleigh Riehl: Defender, Penn State
Erica Skroski: Defender, Galloway Twp., N.J. (Absegami H.S., Rutgers)
Chantelle Swaby: Defender, Rutgers
Madison Tiernan: Midfielder, Voorhees, N.J. (Eastern H.S., Rutgers; out injured)