Sky Blue FC of New Jersey overcame controversy, adversity and numerous early season losses to craft one of the most amazing comeback stories in U.S. women’s soccer history.
How did the upstart Sky Blue persevere through three different head coaches, squeak into the playoffs as the fourth and final entry, then win three consecutive games on the road to claim the inaugural WPS title, all with a mother-player-coach at the helm? SBFC and U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Heather O’Reilly tells us how it all played out.
The unique playoff system in Women’s Professional Soccer ensures a hard road to the WPS title for the fourth place finisher during regular season league play.
With the momentary relief and euphoria of securing that final playoff berth comes the realization that three straight road games stand between your team and a championship.
This was the scenario the Sky Blue FC faced on Aug. 9 when the Los Angeles Sol beat the Boston Breakers on the final day of the regular season, giving the New Jersey club its coveted playoff berth.
Sky Blue had already endured monumental internal upheaval just to get to that point, with team captain Christie Rampone taking over as head coach with just two games left in the regular season, becoming the third head coach of the year after Ian Sawyers and Kelly Lindsey.
Rampone knew that just to get to the title game, her team would have to defeat the Washington Freedom at the Maryland Soccerplex in the first round on a Saturday, then travel to the Midwest take down the streaking St. Louis Athletica at Busch Soccer Park in the Super Semifinal on a Wednesday. The championship game against the Sol would then be played three days later at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Rampone’s message to her players: “Pack for Los Angeles.”
It was that kind of confidence and team unity that enabled Sky Blue to rise above a soap opera season and finish in triumph.
Six games into the season, Sky Blue had won one game and scored three total goals.
“There’s no doubt, we were in a bad way,” said O’Reilly. “We were in last place and our coach had just gotten fired. We almost had the sense that we had hit rock bottom, but at the same time, we knew that our group was full of incredible potential. We had one thing going for us in that we had great team chemistry. Even when times were tough, we were still a tight group and never lost faith in each other.”
A breakthrough game for Sky Blue came on May 31 when it defeated the Boston Breakers, 2-1, on goals from Natasha Kai and Kacey White in front of a nice home crowd and Fox Soccer Channel viewers.
“Looking back, I really do think that win over Boston was a key point in the season,” said O’Reilly. “At that time, we’d gone almost two months with just one win and that game gave us the confidence that we could play with any team in the league. That was something we never let go.”
O’Reilly says that the team started to play with more confidence and freedom. “We weren’t tight, we weren’t playing scared. We were just going for it.”
After that Boston game and with Lindsey now on the bench, SBFC lost just three times in its next 10 games. While there were still some on-field struggles, the points were slowly accumulating.
With two games left in the season and the playoffs still very much a possibility, another bombshell was dropped on the players when Lindsey abruptly resigned.
“I was proud of our organization with how they handled everything this season, even though at times there was a lot of frustration and distractions from the game on the field,” said O’Reilly. “But I feel that any action that was taken was for the benefit of the players, and I know we appreciated that.”
As Rampone took over the team, O’Reilly says that the ups and downs of the season had served to harden the team mentally and unite them even more.
“Even though Kelly left, we still very motivated because we all knew we still had a good chance for the playoffs,” she said. “At that point, it was almost humorous. We had been through so much that we felt we could handle anything. As more adversity came our way, our group just got tighter and tighter, and thank goodness for Christie Rampone. She is a great leader.”
If anything, Sky Blue’s run to the WPS title reinforced two themes. First, never underestimate the power of the mind and second, soccer is a players’ game.
“Besides Christie obviously stepping up to be the coach and leading the pack, which I knew was a difficult job, having to make decisions on lineups and who to play, I feel like it was a whole collective effort to win the title,” said O’Reilly. “Everyone really knew their role and executed it. It was a lot like winning the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. It was a massive team win. Jen Buczkowski really stepped up for us. Tasha Kai stepped up, and she was injured the whole time. Keeley Dowling played her best soccer of the year. A lot of players contributed in their own ways. And for sure Jenni Branam was awesome in goal.”
While most of the Sky Blue players watched the Los Angeles-Boston game together – the game that would decide their playoff fate – O’Reilly just couldn’t do it. Instead, she went to the golf course with Dowling to play a few holes and calm her nerves.
“I wound up texting my teammates every few minutes anyway so I might as well been there watching,” said O’Reilly. “I saw that that Boston was up 1-0, and I was just freakin’. But Keeley didn’t want to know so I didn’t tell. I had to keep it to myself. Then Kacey (White) texted me that Marta scored to tie the game and we were driving home when we found out that game was over and LA had won.
“From then on, we had a clean slate. It was one game at a time.”
Even more amazingly, Sky Blue had not beaten any of the other playoff teams during the regular season. They were 0-2-1 against the Sol, 0-3 against Athletica and 0-2-1 against the Washington Freedom, a record that included a wild 4-4 tie and 3-1 loss in their final regular season game where a win would have put Sky Blue directly in the playoffs and not at the mercy of the Los Angeles and Boston result.
On the instruction of their coach/captain, Sky Blue packed for Los Angeles but headed to Washington, where it downed the Freedom 2-1 on goals from Kai and Brazilian Francielle. New Jersey out-shot the Freedom 24-12.
“I don’t think we had anything to lose at that point, especially considering how our season had went,” said O’Reilly. “After we beat Washington, we were like, ‘oh my gosh,’ we might win this whole thing.”
Then came the 1-0 victory against St. Louis on, remarkably, Dowling’s first goal of the year.
“I feel like we went into the St. Louis game feeling that we could compete with this team, but we hadn’t shown it,” said O’Reilly. “We were 0-3 against them so we kind of had a vendetta and that motivated us.”
The 1-0 victory against the Sol at The Home Depot Center on a first-half goal from O’Reilly capped the Cinderella run. O’Reilly was named the MVP of the match, but humbly deflected the honor to Rampone in her post-game acceptance speech.
“Our bottom line is what we talked about all season,” said O’Reilly. “We knew we could be a very good team, that we had the potential, but we never quite put it together. At the end, I think we surprised some people by playing some really nice soccer. So we were happy that we proved to others what we knew all season.”
Despite the coaching carousel, O’Reilly is quick to give credit to all involved in the team’s historic season.
“Everyone can agree that we were fortunate to be put together as this team,” she said. “There was obviously some great vision in piecing together this unit and all our coaches during the year contributed in different ways to our eventual success.”
As the players lifted the WPS championship trophy on a midfield stage, they bounced up and down under the appropriately blue southern California skies to the chant of, “Sky Who? Sky Blue! Sky Who? Sky Blue!”
“That chant embodied who were and where we came from,” said O’Reilly. “No one thought we would be there, but we were there, we deserved to be there and we did it together. Doing that cheer was just perfect.”
Fast forward to the week after the WPS final when O’Reilly and Sky Blue teammate Yael Averbuch, both former Tar Heels, were training with UNC in Chapel Hill and waiting for their turn in a shooting drill.
“Hey Ya-Ya,” O’Reilly said under her breath and with an impish smile. “Remember that time when we won the WPS championship? That was awesome.”
It sure was.