Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra is a veteran of women’s professional soccer in the United States. A former player on the U.S. Men’s National Team, Gabarra began his career coaching women’s soccer with the Washington Freedom in the Women’s United Soccer Association in 2000. He coached there until joining Sky Blue in New Jersey for the Women’s Professional Soccer league’s 2011 season. And starting next week, he will begin a new chapter with Sky Blue as its first season with the National Women’s Soccer League kicks off.
Last Wednesday, Gabarra spoke to NWSL News on the phone to discuss the new league, his new Sky Blue team and what he expects this season.
You’ve been with Sky Blue since 2011 when the Women’s Professional Soccer league was still around and you coached the Washington Freedom with the Women’s United Soccer Association. Having been a coach in both of those professional women’s soccer leagues, how does the NWSL compare so far?
It’s not that much different, as far as my perspective in coaching. You still have to put together a team and gel a lot of different personalities with international players. The one challenge that’s different is the fact that everything is starting so much later. It seems like preseason, for us anyway, has been different every week. You’re trying to work on your core group, trying to see who’s going to make the roster and then you’ve got national team players getting in late or they’re only here for a limited amount of time.
I think the value of preseason in this league is probably not as rewarding because the challenges are different. It’s been a lot more choppy, where in WUSA and WPS you had your roster and you had four to six weeks of time together to go away and play exhibition games and play other teams in the league. I think it’ll start a little off more choppy where teams haven’t really gelled yet and teams haven’t really gotten to know each other until sometime in May.
Right – you have a short preseason, the American and Canadian players been away for national team duty and, as far as I know, the Mexican players haven’t arrived yet (as of last week). So, having players from the three national teams thrown in together via the allocation process without much time together, how do you build team chemistry in these circumstances with your first game 10 days away?
Well, you’ve had to do it remotely or you’ve had to take advantage of when, for instance, our Canadian and U.S. players had about 10 days together. Our Mexican players arrive – I think ours are getting in tonight. By the time they get physicals and are cleared, we may not see them until the weekend or early next week on the field. It’s certainly been a challenge and you’ve got to focus on a core group outside of those [allocated] players, where it’s eight to ten players you know are here all the time. You’ve got to kind of blend in building that core and getting them to gel, and then when your internationals are here you’ve got to see how best you can do it. It certainly hasn’t been perfect. One thing I’ve learned from this league is the important part is to get it started and it’ll end up turning out pretty well.
Speaking of allocated players, talk to me a little bit about your decision to put Kelley O’Hara up top. She’s been a defender for the national team for a while now and has developed in that role. Was it a tough decision to look at putting her in an attacking position instead?
I have always preferred versatile players and to have someone who can play left back who’s actually a very effective attacking player is great for our club. The decision to play her up front is simply that we don’t have better attacking players that we can put up there. You look at each step along the roster-building process, everything is competitive – you try to win each step and do the best you can. Some teams are struggling for defenders and some teams just don’t have the experienced or effective attacking players and she’s got to fill that role for us right now. But who says that during the course of a game or during the course of the season she may not be put in left back at times, depending on a lot of different variables? But when you look at how our roster was built and how it ended up falling out, she’s one of our better attacking players. To put her at left back just because she’s been successful there at the national team level – that may not always make sense at the club level. She certainly understands it and like any good pro, she’s willing to do what’s best for the team.
We’ve seen a lot of teams deal with allocated players getting injured or not being available to play. You’ve had your own issue with U.S. National Team goalkeeper Jill Loyden being injured. (She broke her hand in March and was expected to be out for three months.) When you build a team around allocations and then lose one, how difficult is that for you? It looks to me like you’re a little bit fortunate in that you have two backup goalkeepers when many other teams only have one, so they would’ve been in a tougher spot losing a starting goalkeeper.
It’s difficult and you’re right, in our case we were very fortunate in trying get depth at as many positions as possible. We took Ashley Baker [from the University of Georgia] in the college draft and Brittany Cameron [previously from the Western New York Flash] was someone who probably would’ve been up there as one of my top choices as a No. 2 – she became available in the supplemental draft. Even though we already had two keepers at the time, the way the supplemental draft unfolded, it made a lot of sense to pick her up. Then Jill gets hurt and then all the sudden you look like you’re really smart. But it’s difficult to replace those [allocated] players because, like you said, they not only fill a roster spot but they are one of your top players.
Where we are right now, at least my perception with the player pool, is there’s not players out there that you can go and say ‘Oh, I need a backup goalkeeper.’ At this point they’re all pretty much signed or taken. Same thing is probably true with some field players, it’s difficult to find those players. You’ve got eight teams, that’s a lot more spots than the last year in WPS and you’ve got a group of players that without a league for a year, they’ve kind of moved on with their lives. That group of players would’ve normally filled those spots. It’s part of the growing pains of starting a new league and filling eight teams.
Teams are limited to just two non-American players, outside the Canadian and Mexican allocations. You’ve signed forward Lisa De Vanna and defender Caitlin Foord, both from Australia, both previously coached by current U.S. National Team head coach Tom Sermanni. Tell me a little bit about that decision – what did you need to consider for those two spots, what needs do they fill on the team and is there a reason they are both from Australia?
On paper it might look like, ‘Yeah, he went and got two Australians,’ but they were each separate decisions. Like you said, you’re limited to two spots to fill and I do like, specifically in Caitlin’s case and being so young, having another Australian with her. I think it will add to her comfort and increase the speed of her adjustment to the league. But with Lisa, we needed the pace up front to get in behind back lines and a proven goal-scorer. There weren’t a lot of options with the European championships going on this summer and most players had been signed already prior to the league forming.
I had talked to Caitlin way back in probably November and she was undecided about whether she wanted to play, being younger and playing for the U-20s Australian team. The full [national] team, they were concerned about possible injury and burnout, but as time went on, she ended up deciding she really wanted to come and having Lisa certainly helped in that decision. She’s a player that I’ve liked since she first played in the World Cup a couple years ago. Good defender that can get forward and she’s looked very good so far in preseason. She’s got the recovery pace to track down some of the faster forwards in the league. With those two, we get good soccer players but we also get some needed speed in the back and up front. But it wasn’t like, ‘Let’s go get two Australians.’ A lot it was availability and my preference – I like them both as players. I’ve talked to Tommy [Sermanni] for years and I’ve coached Lisa before, so I talked to him about her and some other Australians I’ve had in the W-League.
What do you think your chances are this season? What do you expect to be the biggest challenge for you, which teams are you keeping an eye on and where are you hoping Sky Blue will be strongest? It’s still early, but I’m sure you have some thoughts.
You can look at teams and it’s all on paper. We’re preparing for Western New York, which is going to be a huge challenge for us. They’re a very potent attacking team. I think we’ll probably end up in the top-middle of the table and my goal is to be a tough team to beat. I think our goal-scoring will probably come from more than a couple different players and will be evenly balanced. I think we’ll be a tough team to score on and a tough team to get three points from. To get started, I think that’s going be good. Certainly, there’s some other teams that may look good on paper, but as it usually does, it ends up being match-ups: who do you match up well against and who do you struggle with? With an unbalanced schedule, maybe you’re fortunate that your worst match-up is a team you only play three times instead of four. Looking at Boston, we’re two even teams, even though we’re structurally different. Those will be good matches. That’s all I’ve seen though, I haven’t seen all the teams.
I think that preseason match against Boston got everyone excited for the season to start – I know I can’t wait.
It’ll be here before you know it. It’s coming fast and, for the coaches, you never have enough time to prepare – you’d always like to have more time, but it is exciting. It was great to see all the players on the field up in Boston playing against them. We’re looking forward to our home opener here on the 14th.
I want to thank Sky Blue FC coach Jim Gabarra for taking time out of his preparation for the upcoming NWSL regular season to answer our questions.