NEW YORK — Two days before Christmas, Sky Blue FC general manager Alyse LaHue was reminiscing about past offseasons.
“It goes by real quick,” she said of the current National Women’s Soccer League offseason, for her a period from October to January.
Coming from her, the thought is not surprising. LaHue has been the face of the team’s rebuild since she took the job, initially on an interim basis, in April, and in that time developed a reputation of being both busy and hands-on.
In Iowa for the holidays, she was not taking a break; right after this phone interview, she had to join a conference call with the league and its media consulting partner Octagon.
In her eight months addressing Sky Blue’s most troubling issues and transforming the team’s image, LaHue has already accomplished a lot.
On the field, the team’s form improved after head coach Denise Reddy was fired and eventually replaced by Freya Coombe. Off it, the team has officially replaced 5,000-seat Yurcak Field, Rutgers University’s shower-less soccer stadium, for 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena. There is still much to be done.
“These are all really rapid progressions of the venue and some of the turnaround with the club,” LaHue told Pro Soccer USA. “We’re really looking at this as a collective. … For me, this is just an ongoing process. “
Moving to Red Bull Arena
Of the many events that allowed Sky Blue a makeover over the last eight months, the most emblematic is the team’s move to Red Bull Arena. In many ways, the two trial runs at the stadium towards the end of the 2019 season pointed out the worst things about Yurcak Field, a venue Sky Blue already knew it had to leave with improving league standards. It also proved Red Bull Arena the ideal place for the team’s eventual relocation.
“That was a dream — a dream come true, literally,” captain Sarah Killion told Pro Soccer USA in October of playing at Red Bull Arena. “That stadium is a soccer stadium and to be able to pretty much almost fill the lower bowl twice in front of a home crowd, there’s nothing like that feeling.”
The same was true for the team’s fans. Supporters group Cloud 9 felt “pure joy” during Sky Blue’s first match at Red Bull Arena in August, and for Cloud 9’s leader Jen Muller, Red Bull Arena was also the best place for her team to land.
“I think for the current fan base and potentially new fan base — there’s a lot of Red Bulls fans that are in North Jersey and in New York that would buy season tickets, that would come to more games,” Muller told Pro Soccer USA in October. “For the fans, I think it’s definitely ideal.”
LaHue said her top target in searching for Sky Blue’s 2020 venue was always Red Bull Arena, though it required an increased financial commitment from Sky Blue’s owners. In the end, they were “extremely supportive,” LaHue said, and she already has positives to show for it.
LaHue said the team exceeded 2019 season ticket holder numbers, both in tickets sold and money made, in the hours after tickets went on sale the Friday before Christmas. Three days later, LaHue said the number of season ticket holders was around 400.
“As a front office, you want to be able to show that we made the right decision,” LaHue said. “I think having that response from the fans, it feels really good to know that this is a good decision for us and one that we think is going to be tremendous, not just for Sky Blue, but really for the NWSL as a whole.”
LaHue said her big goal is to get to 1,000 season tickets, a number Sky Blue has never reached before.
“I’m feeling really good and the fans have been tremendously responsive. I’m excited for what we can do,” she said.
With a stadium settled, the search for a training ground, player housing, and possibly an office for hopefully a larger staff is underway.
Betting on Coombe
Sky Blue’s move to Red Bull Arena was not the club’s only major announcement this offseason. In the midst of a stadium search, LaHue was also looking for a head coach after Reddy was fired in June. She was eventually replaced with Coombe, who this month was announced as the head coach after five matches as the team’s interim.
The coaching search occurred in two parts. After a wider than expected pool of candidates expressed interest at first, LaHue and Co. interviewed a number of candidates before Coombe was named the interim in September. After her five-match stint to close the season, the search was reopened; Coombe was naturally included in that pool.
“We interviewed both domestic, international candidates, candidates that have been coaches in other international women’s leagues, coaches that have been assistants in the NWSL currently,” LaHue said.
What impressed LaHue about Coombe was her work keeping the players focused and ensuring “that we didn’t give up at the end of the year.” Players had similar reactions working with her over the course of a couple of months.
“Freya is a tactical coach,” Killion said. “I think she has the ability to read the game really well, breaks down film really well, whether that’s our team or opposing teams, and she’s able to really formulate a really good game plan surrounding the next game and who we’re playing next, so it was so much fun to work with her. I think she’s very soccer intelligent.”
Coombe was brought in first to continue Sky Blue’s best run of form in two years. The team only won after Reddy was fired, and took 18 of its 20 points after her firing, marking on-the-field improvement that matched the club’s quick rise off it.
“It was frustrating,” Killion said of the nine-match winless stretch to open the season. “We were trying so, so hard and I think that the style of play that was kind of on top of us, that we were trying to play in, just wasn’t working. … It took Alyse coming in and making a really hard decision to finally figure that out, and I think that by the end of the season, what we saw was a team that given a fresh start, given the opportunity to play to their individual talents on the field, I think that you could see that we thrived.”
Part of Coombe’s first tasks will be making selections in January’s college draft, and LaHue said Coombe was helping in preparations even before her full-time appointment.
With two of the top three picks in the draft and six overall selections, it will be an integral part of the process as the team plans to expand its roster size, which LaHue said was a priority.
Winning back trust
The story of Sky Blue’s 2019 season is one that truly begins with the April announcement of general manager Tony Novo’s departure. The leader that allowed for poor living and working conditions had become unpopular, and though supporters had called for his exit, it seemed unlikely before the club’s announcement days before the season started.
“A combination of elation, of a sense of relief,” Muller said of her feelings when the news broke. “It was pretty indescribable because it took so long for them to do it.”
A rebuild still had to take place, and a long list of issues still needed addressing. At the center of that for LaHue and Co. was the fanbase, who had lost faith in the club.
“If we could boil everything down to one statement, that was it for us in the front office: to regain the trust of the fans,” LaHue said. “I think [they] had become a bit disgruntled or disillusioned with the club from some of the things that have happened.”
Muller said that LaHue did win back the supporters’ trust, and not only through her well-executed vision of how the club needed to change and update itself.
“The transparency has just been unparalleled and just to see how the players have responded to her I think is the most important part,” Muller said. “Yes, she’s done a lot on the fan side, but the player side, I can’t speak for them obviously, but just what you see on game day and how you hear some of them talk, they’re happy.”
During the 2019 season, all parties seemed like eager collaborators. That includes Killion, who was hesitant to re-sign with the club but has since had her contract option exercised. It leaves the mood in a remarkably different place compared to a year ago, and may allow the team to finally put that rough patch behind it.
“I think that we are on the road to success,” Killion said. “I think we’re all really excited for what’s to come.”