Sky Blue FC had a phenomenal 2019 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) College Draft, taking UCLA defender Hailie Mace with the No. 2 overall pick, and the University of North Carolina’s Julia Ashley with the No. 6 pick. Both have national team potential, and could help the New Jersey club quickly get back on track after last year’s embarrassing last-place, one-win season.
There’s one big problem, though: Neither player is expected to report to Sky Blue next month for training camp thanks to the team’s ongoing problems with housing accommodations, practice facilities, and overall management. The organization, whose majority owner is Gov. Phil Murphy (D-NJ), is in complete disarray.
Mace told Sky Blue before the draft that she had no intention of signing with the club. She is currently playing in Australia with Melbourne City FC, and is said to be keeping her options open in Europe for the summer. Ashley, meanwhile, told The Equalizer this week that she had signed a deal with the Swedish club Linkopings FC. This is a particular blow for the organization, since Ashley is a New Jersey native, and Sky Blue general manager Tony Novo seemed confident they would sign Ashley at the draft.
“All my friends and everyone saying, ‘Oh, Julia’s coming to play in New Jersey.’ That was really cool,” Ashley told The Equalizer. “But the downside, just from what I’ve heard in terms of organization, some of the housing issues that they’ve had this past year — I’ve heard some bad things. I think everybody has.”
Last July, The Equalizer and SB Nation’s Once A Metro released almost simultaneous reports into the deplorable conditions Sky Blue players were dealing with: Team-provided housing featured plastic bags and sheets of cardboard for windows, and comforters stuffed into holes in the walls; the team often failed to reimburse players for baggage fees and medical costs; some of their practice fields had lumpy, thick grass and uneven terrain; and, perhaps most appallingly, the team’s training facilities had no locker rooms, no running water, and no proper bathrooms.
Those were the conditions for a franchise in the most successful female pro soccer league in the United States, a franchise that includes 2015 and 2016 FIFA Player of the Year and reigning World Cup hero Carli Lloyd.
In the six months since these exposés were published, not much has changed at Sky Blue FC. Days after the conditions became public, the team parked a decrepit-looking RV trailer with running water, a bathroom, and shower near the practice facility. And that was the extent of last year’s in-season improvements.
— Allison Lee (@allibecc) July 18, 2018
This offseason, the NWSL has doubled each team’s housing budget, which should enable the team to find housing with real windows and zero holes in the wall. However, with training camp scheduled to begin next month, Novo had no concrete updates to provide reporters at the draft.
“We’ve been working towards that, I promise you guys that within the next 30 days or so we’re going to make some of those announcements of improvements that we’ve made,” Novo said, before urging the media to write more positive stories about the team, to help change the perception.
But that perception is going to be hard to change until palpable actions are taken by the team. Apparently, Sky Blue tried hard to get Ashley to change her mind about going to Europe and play for her hometown team, but not even a long phone call with Murphy could change her mind.
“It was a good conversation,” Ashley said about her talk with the governor. “They just kind of told me, ‘You need to take a little bit of a leap of faith with us,’ and come see how everything is going to be in terms of living and facilities and [how] things are going to be more structured.”
Cloud 9, the official fan club of Sky Blue FC, has spent the past six months advocating for Novo to be fired. Considering the silence from the club, the NWSL, and U.S. Soccer, they often feel like they’re shouting into the abyss. There might indeed be improvements on the horizon; the team might actually have working toilets this week; it’s reasonable to hope that Lloyd won’t, once again, be forced to take an ice bath in a trash can. But given their six months of silence, and their inability to convince Ashley or Mace to sign with the team, there’s also plenty of reason to remain skeptical.
“Tony Novo and ownership, it still doesn’t seem that they recognize that these are real issues. It’s a dire situation. There is no sense of urgency,” Cloud 9 leader Jen Muller told ThinkProgress.
Muller hopes that having Ashley, a local player and first-round draft pick, coming out and explicitly stating that she isn’t playing for the team due to the abysmal conditions will shame the organization into finally making the necessary improvements. But, until then, she and many other Cloud 9 members will not be renewing their tickets. It’s a drastic step, and a devastating one for super fans of the team. However, at this point, it’s the only way they believe they’ll be heard.
“It’s very painful,” Muller said. “We’re a supporters club, we’re here for the players. We want to support our team, but we don’t want to financially support an organization that is self sabotaging.”