Sky Blue FC is the longest operating women’s professional soccer club in the United States. It has survived the collapse of Women’s Professional Soccer, the predecessor to the National Women’s Soccer League, and made it through some tumultuous recent years in the NWSL, too. But six seasons into the team’s NWSL stint, there are questions as to whether Sky Blue can survive another year of the poor living and working conditions that have come to define the franchise.
Deadspin spoke to multiple sources about the team’s longstanding struggles, including former Sky Blue players and staff, club management, and the retired national team goalkeeper and U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Hope Solo. In short, the team plays and works in unsafe, unsanitary, unprofessional conditions—and club owners, league officials and the U.S. Soccer Federation are overlooking or excusing what has become an inexcusable situation.
This year’s Sky Blue team is winless through 17 games. Their 0-13-4 record is the worst ever in NWSL history—and also the least of the team’s problems. In recent weeks, the club has been under scrutiny for the conditions it provides for its athletes on and off the field.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has been the club’s majority owner for 12 years. In a July 18 public statement, the Goldman Sachs alum-turned-politician explained that he purchased the franchise as a way to address “the fundamental unfairness of the lack of a professional women’s soccer league in the US.” Murphy was compelled to issue the statement because, a day earlier, multiple outlets had reported poor conditions and endemic mismanagement at the club.
“I scored a hat trick, but I wasn’t myself today,” Chicago Red Stars striker Sam Kerr said on July 7, after single-handedly downing her former club, 3-1. “I feel sick playing against these girls. They’re my lifelong friends.” That was as far as Kerr was willing to go at the time, but she hinted, in quotes first tweeted by Dan Lauletta, that there was something more amiss at Sky Blue than a losing season.
After Kerr’s comments, The Equalizer and Once a Metro published pieces in which former Sky Blue players refused to Leave It At That. Those stories detailed the poor facilities and travel accommodations that Sky Blue players have endured as a matter of course. It hasn’t been easy for visiting teams at Sky Blue’s home field, either; the facility lacks adequate treatment accommodations and showers, for starters.
“There were a handful of teams that had less than adequate facilities for ‘professional’ athletes,” Solo told Deadspin via email. “But Sky Blue was always the worst when it came to off-the-field field quality and professionalism.
“Our team never showered post game at Sky Blue, which is neither hygienic nor healthy,” Solo wrote. “Shower facilities were ‘offered’ to us, but they were not convenient or even inside our own locker room. We trained in a bubble that had no airflow and used to give me extreme anxiety as I saw the roof sag. At times, our coach would not even allow us to train because the grass fields were not lined or not safe, with very uneven ground and uncut grass.” Away from the field, the home team has it even worse.
“The same shit every year,” a former player affiliated with Sky Blue FC since 2013 said of the team’s housing facilities. “Last year, we were living five girls to a house where the roof was leaking. We constantly used this one house that everyone has to move out [of] midseason, and then it’s a free for all.”
“The housing that … Sam [Kerr] lived in was okay,” the former Sky Blue assistant coach David Hodgson told Deadspin. “The other house, you would not let your dogs sleep in. [Players] had to cardboard up the windows [and] had plastic bags for windows. It was the most disgusting place you’ve ever seen in your life.” Rookies or less senior members of the team were regularly moved two or three times in a season.
Despite years of complaints, changes have been few and far between. The club informed Deadspin that its nine most senior players were upgraded to fully furnished apartments in 2018. No word was given about change in accomodations for the rest of the team. Sources we spoke to reported that some players have once again moved multiple times already this season.
Additionally, the team’s players from New Jersey—there are three on this year’s 20-woman roster, including Carli Lloyd—are not offered housing, according to former assistant coach Paul Grieg. “If you had a Jersey residential address there was no accommodation.” The state of New Jersey is 170 miles long and 70 miles wide, and sources told Deadspin the team splits a couple of rental cars for the entire roster. Players commute to and from practice facilities and games with their own equipment in tow, and without having taken showers. One source likened it to arriving as a club team, with bags of sweaty gear.
Grieg once laid out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats —or SWOT analysis—of the housing situation for Sky Blue owners and management. “I said, ‘Why don’t we get 12-month leases?’”
He was told that since players would only be in the area for seven months, 12-month leases would be a waste of money. That shortsightedness has made things more difficult, though, because the NWSL season overlaps with the Jersey Shore’s summer tourism season. Affordable rental accommodations become more difficult to come by, which sets the annual musical chairs act in motion. “You’re not going to get summer rentals [beginning in] March,” Grieg said. “The season dates don’t help when it came to staying down in that area.”
The league’s rules don’t help, either. Longer leases would give players a chance to get settled, but might send the club over league-mandated housing budgets. In an email sent by the club July 22, Deadspin learned the NWSL imposes a housing cap of $57,400 per team.
After Kerr’s comments, Sky Blue FC supporters group Cloud 9 tweeted a request to team management for more accountability. This sparked the club to make its own statement online. “Please continue to hold us accountable as we strive to deliver the best possible product and environment for our players, coaches, staff and you as fans,” the club posted on July 9. “We know that we must do better, and it is paramount that we lift each other up.”
The statement was hard to argue with by design, but left out a crucial element—part of holding the club accountable is calling out their history of unfulfilled promises. “I’m glad that they put something out,” said Cloud 9 organizer Jen Muller. “I mean, they kind of had to and I think part of that was out of respect for us. I don’t know if they would have said anything if we didn’t, unfortunately.”
Cloud 9 is independent of the front office, but coordinates closely with the club to create a lively and loud experience at Sky Blue home games. That has included the occasional meeting with Sky Blue management, with the most recent being prior to this season. “They allowed us to ask questions and they gave us answers on what they could give us,” Muller said of that meeting. “They’ve always been open to dialogue.” Supporters want a team they can be proud of, but they especially want their home team to stay in New Jersey. Given the fact three independent NWSL teams have been either sold or relocated since 2016, it’s a reasonable concern.
The Western New York Flash were abruptly sold after winning the 2016 NWSL Championship. The team was sold to independent owners in North Carolina and renamed the North Carolina Courage; they’re back at the top of the standings and play their home games in Cary, NC. Another NWSL team, FC Kansas City, was absorbed by the Real Salt Lake ownership group, who changed the team name to Utah Royals FC. The Boston Breakers recorded losing seasons in four of their five years in the NWSL and folded this past offseason. Like Sky Blue, all three clubs were unaffiliated with a men’s professional team.
Despite all this tumult, Cloud 9 felt confident in the club’s vision for this year and beyond after meeting with the team. They were also assured by management that the club was compliant with the minimum standards set by the NWSL. “You know, all things considered, you don’t know how much of that dialogue has been truthful,” Muller said. “But the dialogue has been there.”
Conditions at Sky Blue FC represent just one unraveling thread in the frayed fabric of women’s soccer in the United States. While Sky Blue’s conditions seem to be tipping towards crisis, they are also part of a broader league-wide issue.
At least part of that problem is financial. “It’s not like we’re dealing with like bad people,” a former Sky Blue player told Deadspin in a phone conversation. “We’re dealing with people who are underpaid and just not good at their job. There’s no one wrongdoing person; it’s just [all] not good enough.”
Sky Blue uses part-time staff to fill nearly every position. From trainers, to assistant coaches, to general manager Tony Novo, the team’s staff is paid part-time salaries for what amounts to full-time work. Former assistant coach David Hodgson was initially hired as a sport scientist for Sky Blue FC. “I got [connected with] Sky Blue via U.S. Soccer,” he told Deadspin, “who had mandated that every club needed to have a sports scientist on the books. I was 30 minutes away and U.S Soccer trusted me to do a good job.”
Originally, Hodgson said, the club wanted to bring him on as an unpaid intern. “They offered me no money,” he recalled, “and I’m like, ‘I’m 38, I don’t do internships with a master’s degree.’ U.S. soccer pushed them and they gave me $15,000. And that’s how that happened.”
Hodgson took over as interim head coach, alongside Grieg and goalkeeper coach Jill Loyden, after Sky Blue parted ways with Christy Holly in August of 2017. He returned as an assistant coach before being let go in June.
For all the failures, big and small, at every level, it’s a lack of accountability that defines Sky Blue’s troubles. The club seems aware of the problem, if characteristically unsure how to fix it. “At the end of the day, the buck stops with me and my fellow owner,” Governor Murphy said in a video published July 20 on NJ.com. “In some cases, it’s from the past and has already been corrected. In other cases, it’s in the process of being corrected and was corrected already. And in some cases, we still have wood to chop.”
Murphy also shared that ownership met with player representatives to develop a list of follow-up items. He ensured “explicit, specific conversations” have also been conducted with the Sky Blue management team. As Cloud 9’s Muller said, there’s reason to believe that the team really does want to fix what’s wrong. But the track record of both the club and the league make it difficult to be optimistic. Whether due to lack of capacity or lack of interest, the NWSL and Sky Blue have a history of being late to recognize serious problems and half-hearted in their attempts to fixing them.
One former Sky Blue player felt the problem started with the NWSL. “There’s no leadership anywhere because there’s no commissioner,” she said. “If there’s no commissioner, then there’s no one pointing fingers and [forcing] owners to do their due diligence.” The league’s inability or unwillingness to address this problem—which is not new, as the NWSL has been without a commissioner for over 16 months since Jeff Plush stepped down on March 2, 2017—has gone from frustrating to confounding.
But even under Plush, the league was sluggish when it came to addressing complaints. “I had a conversation with Jeff Plush two years ago and you know one of the girls asked, ‘Are you monitoring the NWSL?’” one player remembered. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And I had to speak up. I was like, ‘You’re not, because you would know that Kansas City is in a two-star hotel with bedbugs. Or, you would know that Western New York just played a game against [Seattle] in a baseball field.” The player went on to say that the league’s commissioner only found out about those conditions after he read about them on Twitter.
Solo wrote about a number of these issues in a blog post back in 2016, but not even the winningest U.S Soccer goalkeeper got a response from the league or the USSF. “After I published the post on my website—showing the awful field conditions and locker room facilities, et cetera—not one person from the league reached out to me,” Solo told Deadspin. “And that was 2016. This year, during my run for the U.S. Soccer Presidency, I attempted to have some meaningful conversations with the [interim] commissioner, Amanda Duffy, about the conditions and need for professional league standards, and got nowhere.”
Solo is not hopeful things will be different under new President Carlos Cordeiro, “U.S. Soccer has allowed these conditions since day one,” she responded, “and continues to allow its top female athletes to be treated like little girls.”
In the past, the NWSL has lacked both the urgency and the capacity, starting with adequate staff, to fully investigate player grievances. Given that the league is still without a commissioner, it is fair to wonder how things might improve in the near term. And in the absence of any accountability structure to speak of, it’s tough to see how subpar working conditions like the ones at Sky Blue FC could be addressed at all, let alone remedied. “My professional experience kind of felt like a semi-professional experience,” the former Sky Blue player Kelly Conheeny said. “It’s just normal.”
It shouldn’t be, of course, but because the league’s broader situation is so precarious and lacking in accountability, players fear speaking out. “What happens if this is taken the wrong way?” a former NWSL player told Deadspin. “Or my GM finds out? Or my coach finds out?
“You don’t play for much,” the former player continued, “but at the same time, playing is everything. And with nine teams in the league, if Sky Blue dissipates, probably half of those girls will not be able to play in the league anymore.”
While conditions in the league have been lousy for some time, the NWSL’s players do have one new way of addressing those persistent problems. The NWSL Players Association is in its first full season of existence, and aims to give players a louder, more united voice. The PA told Deadspin, via email, that it is “working closely with Sky Blue FC and the League to make sure that any concerns and issues are being properly conveyed to the League.”
That statement also indicated that the league is aware of the situation and working to investigate and make improvements. “The process will take time,” the PA wrote, “but the Players Association is doing the best we can to make sure all necessary information is conveyed from the players at Sky Blue FC and that they feel they are being supported in terms of finding solutions.”
The NWSL declined an interview request, offering the following statement instead:
The recent reports regarding Sky Blue FC do not reflect the environment that NWSL players deserve. Providing an infrastructure in which players can grow and develop is important to the league, and we are committed to ensuring that the league’s players have a professional, appropriate, and suitable environment in which to perform and excel.
Sky Blue FC assured us that it shares the league’s commitment and provided a timeline by when improvements will be made. In addition, the league will work with the team’s ownership to ensure their goals and those of the league remain aligned. We strongly believe in the NY/NJ market, which has a long history of passionately supporting the beautiful game and developing some of the best players in U.S. soccer history. We are steadfast in our commitment to be the destination of choice for the world’s elite athletes.
Sky Blue continues to maintain it will be handling the matter internally, but Deadspin has learned that player leadership and team management has already begun meeting to address the most urgent problems. The team’s deficient training facilities and treatment are being addressed, including an upgrade in “the types of treatment available to players at training (e.g. massage therapy).” An RV located at the current training facility is reportedly serving as an emergency fix for the lack of showers and running water on site.
That Sky Blue FC seems to be making emergency improvements is certainly good news. But the club had five years to make such changes and either could not or just did not prioritize it. If the future is going to be different from the past, current Sky Blue FC players will need to keep putting pressure on ownership. “When I was in that situation, I did the best I could to speak up,” one former player said. “But it needs to happen now from the girls who are there.”
Solo agrees. “I know a lot of players power through the conditions because they have such a love for the game and are happy to be living out their dreams as professionals,” she said. “But we can’t settle. We have to fight for some basic professional standards: a four-star hotel, a great field, clean showers and pumped-up balls—these things are all a must. The ‘grateful to be here’ mentality in 2018 needs to stop, and its persistence among female players is why things aren’t getting better at a more immediate pace.”
After the team’s July 14 loss to North Carolina, Sky Blue head coach Denise Reddy and captain Carli Lloyd responded “no comment” when we asked if conversations were happening with the club front office. On July 29, while with the US national team, Lloyd again neglected to respond. “Right now I’m focusing on [the national team],” the Sky Blue FC captain said after a 1-1 draw with Australia in the 2018 Tournament of Nations. “So, I think we can discuss that at another point.” No current Sky Blue FC players or staff members agreed to speak with us for this story.
But US midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who has played against Sky Blue as a member of the Seattle Reign, did offer her insight. “I think there’s still a few franchises that probably, frankly just have to get lopped off,” she said, “and a few better ones have to come in.”
Brazilian forward and former Sky Blue FC player Thaisa Moreno added, “When I was playing [in the United States] in college, I had better facilities than at Sky Blue,” she told Deadspin through a translator after a 2-1 win over Japan in the Tournament of Nations. The former FIU player was recently waived by Sky Blue to pursue options in Europe. “I’m sure that they can develop the sport,” she said, “because it’s not perfect right now.”
While it’s heartening that the team has begun to address the problem posed by its substandard facilities, Sky Blue clearly has work to do—or “wood to chop,” if you prefer the owner’s language—if it’s going to survive another season.
“You have to look at what was best for the growth of the game. I don’t know if that’s really happening with this organization,” said Conheeny. “It just feels like it’s kind of a failed experiment. There just kind of comes a point where if you feel like you can’t do anything more as an organization to further the game or further the life of the players, and you see that it’s affecting the players lifestyle and players well-being, I think it has to be addressed.”
Twelve years ago, the man who is now New Jersey’s Governor bought what’s now his club for what seemed like all the right reasons; his tax returns show that he has lost more than $5 million of his own money on the team. But while he’s said that he bought the team because he wanted to show his daughter that soccer wasn’t just a sport for boys, his team hasn’t been willing or able to carry that weight. The NWSL and US Soccer need to be more diligent in the development and enforcement of standards for its athletes, but if Sky Blue FC is going to survive as a franchise it will need to start living its owners’ professed ideals, and the sooner the better.
Erica L. Ayala is a New York City-based sports writer and youth justice advocate. Follow her on Twitter @elindsay08.
RJ Allen is a sports writer from Upstate New York. She loves all things to do with goalkeepers, defenders, and soccer podcasts. A life long Red Sox fan, she really loves a good underdog story. She is the Editor in Chief of Backline Soccer and a member of the NWSL Media Association. Follow her on Twitter @thesoccercritic.