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Improvements are coming at Sky Blue FC, but is it enough?

PISCATAWAY, NJ - JULY 07: Sky Blue FC midfielder Carli Lloyd (10) during the second half of the National Womens Soccer League game between the Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC on July 7, 2018 at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

NEW YORK — Since reports surfaced last summer that Sky Blue FC had below-standard living, training and traveling conditions for players, the club has been urged to improve the situation. While some of those demands, particularly in housing and training facilities, will be met this year, doubts remain about whether the club has done enough.

National Women’s Soccer League and Sky Blue FC executives say the club is on the right path. Many fans, reporters and players aren’t so sure. And some players still don’t want to be there. Hailie Mace and Julia Ashley, who were selected in the 2019 NWSL by Sky Blue opted not to sign with the club and instead play overseas.

“While everyone was jumping all over us last year, and rightfully so — we didn’t have a good record — A lot of things that were said were embellished, exaggerated,” Sky Blue FC president and general manager Tony Novo told Pro Soccer USA during an exclusive interview in January. “Yes, we do need to make improvements. Overall, as a league, we do. The women’s game needs to continue to improve and we will continue to make those improvements along with the league.”

NWSL President Amanda Duffy told Pro Soccer USA in November the league was “working on very specific requests and action items that we’ve asked of the club,” and that Sky Blue was being “cooperative.”

The club — owned by New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and Bed Bath & Beyond CEO Steven H. Temares — has started to share some details about those changes. In a February statement, New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy said she would take “an active role” with the team. She also announced an increase in staff for 2019 and that players would be housed in “upscale apartments” rather than placed with host families.

Over the last three years, we’ve gotten away from host families as much as possible,” Novo told said. “It’s still a necessity in the league, or for at least the teams in the league, but . . .  those living conditions (the apartments) are very good.”

Additionally, Novo recognized the training facilities as “one of the biggest challenges that we had” last season. He said the team would spend preseason at Sportika, an indoor sports complex in Manalapan Township, N.J. Novo described Sportika as “a state-of-the-art, $17-million facility with a full-sided indoor for our preseason training and our preseason games. It has lockers, showers, office space, things like that.”

Sky Blue plans to move away from Sportika once winter ends, and Novo said the club is “very close to finalizing a full-time outdoor training facility that has two grass fields, a turf field, lockers, showers, a full training room, has office space, indoor gym, a workout training room with gym equipment.”

Novo also said Sky Blue was in discussion with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer for a doubleheader or two during the season.

But the offseason has come with more bumps for Sky Blue as well. Attempts to recruit two of college soccer’s best players, Mace and Ashley, ended with both rejecting the offers. Not even a call from the governor offering a tour of the new living and training arrangement could sway them, according to The Equalizer.

Novo said it was not abnormal for draft picks to speak to the governor, and that Mace and Ashley are not the first nor the last players to elect overseas gigs.

It is not only potential players who are mildly impressed with the housing and training changes. Jen Muller, the leader of the team’s official supporters’ group, Cloud 9, told Pro Soccer USA in January that the fanbase needs more.

The housing was already starting to improve last year, but it seems to be stepping up a little more this year, which is a good thing,” Muller said. “There’s still no indication that there’s clear communication with players, and the problems are systemic.”

Novo said he did meet with each of the players, coaches and other staff members at the conclusion of the 2018 season. On the team’s star player, Carli Lloyd, Novo said they agreed that “we need to make things better.”

“But she also agreed that some of the perception was misleading,” Novo said, adding that she is “here for the long haul.”

Lloyd could not be reached for comment.

Days after the draft, outrage was sparked again when a job listing for a volunteer assistant coach was spotted online.

Novo said volunteer coaches are not a new development.

That’s something that we and other teams in our league have done for years,” Novo said.

He said the volunteer role will be in addition to Sky Blue’s regular coaching staff: a full-time head coach and assistant coach, and an assistant coach and a goalkeeper coach who work during the season. The volunteer position, according to Novo, is “a good way to nurture and groom other coaches.”

Pro Soccer USA has not yet been able to verify with other NWSL clubs if they have volunteer assistant coaches or have had them in the past.

Upon clarifying that he did say other teams in the league have appointed volunteers, Novo said Sky Blue has “better staffing and better housing than a few of the other teams in the league,” singling out franchises not associated with Major League Soccer teams. 

Sky Blue supporters are still concerned.

The fact that Tony Novo is still the GM and president is a big problem because everything happened under his watch,” Muller said.

She and other members of Cloud 9 have decided not to renew season tickets; Muller said at the time that it was a group of around 20 members who decided not to renew, though that was a rough estimate. 

Muller also said the team’s supporters feel like they are in an unusual situation as advocates for the players.

Cloud 9 was never treated poorly as a supporters’ group,” she said. “We always got what we needed, but this isn’t about us. This is about our players and the staff that are trying to do well, and just the health of the team overall. It gets overwhelming.”

Cloud 9 has support from other fans around the league and country and recently won the Tifo of the Year award from the Independent Supporters Council for a tifo that read, “Don’t give up the fight.”

If you saw the other nominees, they’re much grander in scale and what have you, but it was more so the meaning behind that tifo than anything else, which meant a lot,” Muller said. “A majority of them are MLS groups, and that includes local groups, like the Red Bulls supporters, [Philadelphia Union], and the Third Rail [New York City FC supporters’ group] have all offered their support. When you can get supporters’ groups from those three clubs willing to work together to help us, I think that says a lot about the situation we’re in.”

As things stand, Sky Blue is likely poised for a 2019 season better than the last one, which, in addition to having the dirtiest of laundry aired out, saw the team win only once. That makes Novo optimistic.

My glass is always half full,” he said. “With Denise Reddy, a great coach [who] has another year under her belt and we have improved our staffing to help her both on the field and off the field, … I’m confident that 2019 will be better.”

Even if 2019 is better, the club has yet to eliminate tensions with those on the outside, particularly with its own fanbase.

It’s not good enough because we don’t know the resources they have,” Muller said. “They’re doing the best they can, but I think they could do better if there was a better system in place.”

The supporters want to see Sky Blue thrive, but they’re skeptical it can happen under the same management structure that ignored massive problems in the past.

Or as Muller put it, “Not while Tony Novo is still there.”

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