I’ve never been much of a sports fan, but all that changed when I went to my first Sky Blue FC soccer game. What? You haven’t heard of the New Jersey women’s pro team–part of the new National Women’s Soccer League? Neither had I until this summer. Now I wouldn’t miss a Sky Blue home game, and even considered–momentarily–changing our vacation plans to travel to playoff games in Rochester, NY and Kansas City.
I suppose my conversion into soccer mom/fanatic was inevitable. My daughter Ella attended soccer camp this summer and is now a huge fan, and my husband John is a longtime soccer aficionado. Ella’s camp pals told her about Sky Blue, and the next weekend we found ourselves at Yurcak Field in Piscataway, NJ, cheering along with a couple thousand other fans.
There are only eight teams in the fledgling professional league, so NJ is fortunate to host a team. You could also say the league should be grateful to New Jersey: six of the 23 women on the U.S. Women’s National team are from the Garden State. Two of them play on the Sky Blue team: goalkeeper Jill Loyden hails from Vineland, and veteran defender Christie Rampone, from Manasquan, is captain of both the national team and Sky Blue.
“New Jersey is a fabulous place to grow up playing soccer, and Montclair in particular has a great soccer community,” said Gloria Averbuch, director of marketing and public relations for Sky Blue. Averbuch, a Montclair native, knows what she’s talking about. Her oldest daughter, Yael, is one of the Jersey girls playing for the U.S. National team, and she writes a soccer blog for the New York Times. Averbuch’s younger daughter, Shira, is also a soccer superstar. She won the tournament MVP award last month while playing for the USA in the Maccabiah Games in Israel. Both girls played soccer at Montclair High School.
The supportive local soccer environment, where girls can begin playing on teams in grade school, and continue throughout college, has led to an impressively high level of play. “Anyone who comes to a game and experiences this will want to come back.” said goalkeeper Loyden, after a crucial victory against the Washington Spirit earlier this month at Yurcak Field. “The soccer we play is more fun and exciting than people expect.”
Win, lose, or tie–the players truly seem to enjoy the matches, as well as mixing with their enthusiastic fans afterward. Young girls line the bottom row of the bleachers, and the players walk over to meet them and sign autographs. The family-friendly vibe, along with the superb skills and excellent sportsmanship of the players are incredibly appealing.
Or, as Ella put it after attending her first match:
“The players are great role models–especially after the game. They all acted like old friends, and they treated the players from the other team like friends, too. I think that’s good.”
“And they’re really nice to their fans. They don’t treat them like fans–they treat them like friends. A lot of girls would like that. They seem really thankful that their fans came to see them play, and I’m thankful I went.”
You can watch the first game of the NWSL playoffs tomorrow night, Saturday, August 24th at 8pm, when Sky Blue FC faces top-ranked Western New York. FOX Sports 2 will broadcast the game, which is also available on FOXSoccer2go. To sign-up for a free trial, click here.