By Matthew Levine
Piscataway, New Jersey — It may have rained on Sky Blue FC’s parade – literally and figuratively – during the club’s 2018 NWSL home opener on Sunday, but the side’s spirits weren’t dampened despite the 1-0 loss to Seattle Reign FC.
Kickoff at Yurcak Field marked a homecoming for a pair of New Jersey natives that will play a huge role in the club’s success this season. Coach Denise Reddy was at the helm for the first time in front of the home support, while captain Carli Lloyd is back playing on the same field she did as a collegiate athlete at Rutgers University.
“It was good, also good to get it under the belt,” Reddy said postgame. “There’s a little anxiety, you want everything to go great.
“At the end of the day, we have this,” she added, referencing the tough playing conditions.
Lloyd agreed: “It was great. Unfortunately it’s mid-April and it still feels like mid-January. Despite the weather, it was good to play back at home.”
Hands were frozen ❄️ https://t.co/9798rWicp0
— Carli Lloyd (@CarliLloyd) April 16, 2018
Before the game was underway, Lloyd had a chance to be honored by the fans that braved the wet and cold atmosphere after recently scoring her 100th United States women’s national team goal. It’s an achievement Lloyd says she has already put behind her.
“I think it sunk in for two minutes and then it quickly left,” she said. “It’s done. It’s over with. There’s a lot more I have left to accomplish. … While loads of other people think it’s a historic moment, for me it’s just another one in the bag, and I just have to keep going forward and get better.”
Not only is Lloyd hoping to improve her game with Sky Blue FC, but she is hoping to use her playing experience to raise the level of her younger teammates.
“Anything I can do to help the team and make players better, that’s what it’s all about,” she said.
Her influence will be key as the season progresses and will also be a helping hand for Reddy in her first season with the club.
“It’s huge, for sure, “ Reddy said of having Lloyd in the squad. “She wants to be here. She’s invested in the style of play, and she’s able to show by example both in training on the field and through her experience. It’s definitely a huge benefit for us.”
Lloyd’s teammates have already taken notice of her approach to the game.
“She’s a big person in the soccer world, obviously,” Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, in her second year with the team, said. “At the same time, she’s a pretty down-to-earth human. It’s really good having a teammate we can rely on and who brings us together.
“It’s a really refreshing thing to have. Having people with so much experience and talent – having people on your back pushing you and telling you how good you are, but also coming to practice and putting the work in – is just a really good feeling. I don’t think anyone walks in and says, ‘Oh my god, it’s Carli Lloyd who just passed me the ball.’”
On the field, though, Sky Blue has had two tough losses to open the season. The club fell in its season opener to the North Carolina Courage and then to Seattle, both by the score of 1-0.
“It’s a work in progress,” Reddy said. “It’s coming. We gave up a goal in the [92nd] minute against North Carolina and a penalty today against Seattle, and that’s the difference for us.”
One of the positives that Sky Blue should take from the game, though, was their willingness to battle through adversity and their overall character. One of those character-building moments came when Sheridan blocked a second penalty kick – and made another save on the follow-up shot — shortly before the final whistle.
“We want to build a product we are proud of as players and staff, as well as fans who love the game, to watch, learn, and for their enjoyment,” Reddy said.
The new Sky Blue roster, however, is already making plenty of strides with Reddy at the helm. In addition to Lloyd, a number of players joined the team this offseason: forwards Shea Groom, Jen Hoy and defender Rebekah Stott, as well as several younger players like rookie Savannah McCaskill, second-year defender Christina Gibbons and second-year forward Katie Johnson. Gone are defender Kelley O’Hara, traded to Utah, and reigning NWSL MVP Sam Kerr, traded to Chicago.
“From a team standpoint, Denise is doing a really, really good job of implementing philosophy,” Lloyd said. “As long as we kind of build together and buy into it – it’s going to take a little time – but we can play an exciting game of football.”
For Lloyd and the team, it’s not just the beginning of a new season, but the chance for something special in her home state. Lloyd played briefly for Sky Blue FC in 2010, during the Women’s Professional Soccer era, but this is her first NWSL season with the club.
“I played here at Rutgers. I grew up in New Jersey and I’ve been a part of New Jersey youth soccer,” Lloyd said. “It’s kind of a win-win for everybody. It’s an awesome start to what can be a fantastic journey. I’m thrilled to be back home.”
The club will just hope for sunnier days on the pitch and in the sky at the next game at Yurcak Field.