2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinals
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Preseason is in full swing for the National Women's Soccer League as clubs push ahead in their markets during their second month of preseason to prepare for the upcoming 2021 NWSL season. Sky Blue FC is looking to build on their 2020 that saw a Challenge Cup semifinal appearance and an impressive Fall Series run in the Northeast Pod.

The side has been in the process of building up a team and a culture as an organization over the last few seasons, and are finally getting a shot a preparing for a long 2021 with the return of the Challenge Cup and regular NWSL season. 

Coaches Perspective

Freya Coombe is entering her second official year as head coach of the New Jersey side after taking over as the team's interim coach mid-2019. It's still early in this team's rebuilding window and the glimpses they showed during a short 2020 season provided some standout individual performances. Moving forward, Coombe is excited about her teams energy during their preseason.

"I think the really pleasing thing for me is just the level and the desire and level of hunger that the players have come back with from the offseason," said Coombe.

"I think having partly shortened season last year is just, you know, they are really chomping at the bit, ready to get going, and want to be training more and more than we're doing, which is great. Obviously it's a long season so we're trying to get ourselves back in slowly but I think there's a real desire and a hunger amongst the players to come and start the season which is great."

"I think, for me as well, if we compare it to the same time as last year in terms of the level, obviously we're a brand new coaching staff, new team trying to adapt to a new playing style, and the team's just come in at such a higher level than we were at last year. So, I think that's just a much, much higher ceiling on what we can do this year. So, I'm just very excited about what's going to come this season."

One thing we don't know

Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is on an unknown timeline for her return from successful surgery on her right quad following an injury she sustained during the 2021 SheBelieves Cup while on international duty with Canada Soccer. 

"Surgery went really well and I am excited to start my recovery process," said Sheridan. "I will be pushing myself to come back stronger and better than ever! I am very lucky to have amazing people in my corner who will support me each step along this journey! I am already looking forward to being back on the pitch."

The team entered preseason with four goalkeepers on their roster. DiDi Haracic, Megan Hinz, and Amanda McGlynn were all listed in addition to Sheridan and now there will be a priority to evaluate who exactly will be the starting keeper come kickoff during Challenge Cup. 

Three things we know

Coombe also wants the team to continue building on the tactics that they started working on together during 2020, emphasizing more possession and movement on and off the ball.

On bridging team energy and tactics: "I think it's about harnessing that energy that players have come in with a better level of understanding in terms of how we want to play. We certainly, you know, we've just got started with showing what we can do with highly attractive attacking possession style that we want to try and play. So, I think it's using the energy that the players are bringing in to really drive that, and challenge them. Not just physically, but also mentally, with that tactical element of how we want to play and using that energy that they bring in order to get the most out of them cognitively, physiologically, mechanically, throughout the training session."

McCall Zerboni was acquired by Sky Blue FC via trade during the offseason ahead of the 2020 season. The midfielder is a muliti-league veteran, who also has experience on the national team level, and has provided insight for players both on and off the pitch.

On the team coming into market: "I was very pleased with the way that all the players handled themselves this offseason. Everyone came in ticking and firing on all cylinders, fit, sharp. There's just a different motivation and hunger that I'm noticing within the group."

On early preseason energy: "There's energy towards competing and wanting to improve and just that thirst to better themselves and to better the group. I feel like we just kept it fluid and flow in the offseason where we where we left off in the fall series and post tournament, we're picking right up from there and so now we're just moving forward."

Looking ahead

Preseason will run through April as teams prepare for the upcoming Challenge Cup which will kick off on April 9 with the regular NWSL season kicking off on May 15.

Sky Blue FC will hold a closed-door match against James Madison University on Sunday, March 7 at Red Bulls Training Facility. During the two month long preseason clubs will have scrimmage matches set up with local university and college sides should all appropriate COVID protocols be in place and pending league approval.

The preseason roster

The 27 player roster will eventually have to be narrowed down ahead of the Challenge Cup and the start of the regular NWSL season. The current preseason participants consist of players acquired through trades, offseason signings, non-roster invitees, trialists, and the NWSL draft. Midfielders lead the way with 11 players listed at the position.

Non-roster invitees include midfielders Taylor Aylmer, Grace Cutler, and Claire Winter. Forward Mikaela Howell, who started preseason with Sky Blue FC, is no longer in camp. Forwards Carli Lloyd and Evelyne Viens will be reporting to camp in early March following a successful SheBelieves Cup for the USWNT and CanWNT, respectively.

2021 Sky Blue FC Preseason Roster (27 players):
 
GOALKEEPERS (4): Kailen Sheridan (ALL-CAN), DiDi Haracic, Megan Hinz, Amanda "Mandy" McGlynn
 
DEFENDERS (7): Imani Dorsey, Caprice Dydasco, Sabrina Flores, Mandy Freeman, Estelle Johnson, Gina Lewandowski, Erica Skroski
 
MIDFIELDERS (11): Taylor Aylmer (NRI), Nicole Baxter, Grace Cutler (NRI), Jennifer Cudjoe (INTL), Elizabeth Eddy, Nahomi Kawasumi (INTL), Sodam Lee (INTL), Domi Richardson, Claire Winter (NRI), Kenie Wright, McCall Zerboni
 
FORWARDS (5): Carli Lloyd (ALL-USA, NYR), Paige Monaghan, Ifeoma Onumonu, Margaret "Midge" Purce (ALL-USA), Evelyne Viens (INTL, NYR)
 
2021 Allocated Players (ALL): 3 International Players (INTL): 4 Non-roster Invitees: 3

Key: NRI – non-roster invitee, NYR – not yet reported to camp, FED – 2021 Allocated Player, INTL – International Player