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Sky Blue enjoy hallmark day at Red Bull Arena

A record crowd turned out to see Sky Blue’s 1-1 draw against Reign FC.

Sky Blue players pose for a team picture ahead of the National Womens Soccer league match between Sky Blue and Washington Spirit on July 24, 2019 at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP)
Sky Blue players pose for a team picture ahead of the National Womens Soccer league match between Sky Blue and Washington Spirit on July 24, 2019 at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, New Jersey. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP)

HARRISON, N.J. — In front of a record crowd of 9,415, Sky Blue FC played to a 1-1 draw with Reign FC as the team celebrated an exciting day off the pitch but once again dealt with imperfections on it. Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s match at Red Bull Arena:

Red Bull Arena success

Two weeks ago, Sky Blue announced demand for the team’s match against the Reign was so high that a venue switch was necessary. Moving from 5,000-seater Yurcak Field to Red Bull Arena, seating 25,000, the team beat its previous attendance record by about 3,000.

Players post-match quickly turned to crediting the people responsible for arranging the event, namely Alyse LaHue. The interim general manager has been visibly involved since taking the role in April, and the day saw her efforts rewarded.

I’ve known Alyse from Chicago Red Stars, 2009 [Women’s Professional Soccer] days,” Carli Lloyd said, “and she’s just fantastic, and she’s pushing the bar and it’s just great to see.”

LaHue was complimentary of the ticket-sales staff, which had 11 days to market the match, as well as the New York Red Bulls’ staff for assistance. Pitching not only the Red Bulls but also the Sky Blue owners, including New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, she admitted it was a risky proposal.

I’ll present a lot of decisions to them and, obviously, the financials behind it, and they’ve got to get on board with that,” LaHue said. “When I have to say it’s going to cost five or six times the cost to go play at Red Bull and these are the amount of tickets I need to sell to make up that cost, it was a risk on only 11 days to be able to sell. So I needed them to be willing to take that risk with me and they were wholeheartedly willing to do that.”

It was ultimately a successful venture, with LaHue saying the club “could probably [have] pull half of that, revenue-wise, and still be OK.”

Sky Blue players, from captain Sarah Killion to defender Estelle Johnson, expressed a desire to play again at Red Bull Arena. Johnson said it created “a professional experience that we don’t get at Yurcak. That’s not only for us, but for the fans, and I think that’s what is going to keep people coming.”

Reign’s Allie Long echoed the sentiment. The New York state native also noted the potential for a National Women’s Soccer League team to exist in the area.

“Playing at Red Bull Arena allows us to feel like a professional athlete,” Long said. “When you’re at Yurcak at Rutgers, you feel like you’re in college again. … I think that there is a market here. I think that that needs to be developed and I think that it certainly can be, but we need to play in the stadiums for that first to happen.”

Unfinished chances

Though Sky Blue enjoyed a successful day off the pitch and managed to get a point off of the Reign, both teams left things to be desired on it. Playing in heat that required three water breaks certainly did not help matters, but both teams felt they could have come away victorious. The visitors had 18 shots and six on target, while Sky Blue had nine, three on target.

I think there’s definitely some areas for improvement on our end,” Killion said. “I think that we had opportunities to put it away, right there at the end and we could have gotten away with a big win today.”

In some ways, the lack of finishing ability is not surprising. Though both teams steadily created chances Sunday and have done so over the course of the season, they also have low scoring rates. They sit last and second-to-last in goals scored — Sky Blue has 13 and the Reign has 16 — while most of the league’s other teams have scored more than 20 goals. The teams occupy the same positions in shot conversion, with Sky Blue converting 8.2 percent of its opportunities and the Reign converting 8.3 percent.

That ultimately could impact the Reign’s playoff hopes, as the team swaps fourth for fifth after the weekend’s results. Long noted Sky Blue has not “really given a team an easy time in any game” and credited her opponent for scoring first. However, her mind was on the missed chances.

I feel like we should have put some away, a lot away, and it would have maybe had the game go a little bit different if they’re chasing,” Long said. “I think we should have three [points] today.”

Final stretch mindset

Though the result was imperfect for Sky Blue, the team has been able to improve. The team recorded four points out of six in its past two matches, and it has also seen improved results and performances since the start of the summer. Though the playoffs look unlikely at this point, Sky Blue is enjoying the advancements.

I think we’ve obviously been making some strides on the field as well,” Lloyd said. “We’re fighting until that last final whistle, and I think that’s what you need in this league to be able to be successful and vying for playoff spot.”

The off-field work, though, has truly transformed Sky Blue in more ways than one. While Killion said the team is enjoying a more “respectful” reputation, the locker room mood has also improved. 

“You can tell how much they care about us and how much energy and effort they put into making sure that we’re comfortable, that we feel safe, that we feel like we have the environment to improve,” Killion said. “That, in turn, wants us to give back to the club and give back to them and step on the field every single time and make sure that we’re pulling out the best we can.”

With only six matches left in the season, the goal will be to continue what Killion says has been a game-by-game improvement, continuing to approach 2019 a game at a time. The ultimate goal is to finish as high as possible in the standings.

We don’t want to end at the bottom of the league again,” Johnson said. “I hope that everybody above us on the table is starting to check their shoulders a little bit more.”

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