By: Morgan Turner
Unexpected injuries, tough matches, maybe even bad weather. These are all trials a head coach can expect to face during their first season at the helm of a new team.
When Freya Coombe officially stepped into the driver’s seat of Sky Blue FC this past winter, expectations were high. The English ex-pat brought new life to a team that had faced previous tumultuous seasons. With big moves being made in the offseason and a skilled technical staff behind her, Coombe set the ambitious goal of making NWSL playoffs. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world uprooting the lives of millions of people and bringing the professional sports world to a complete standstill for the first time – ever –it was up to the newly appointed Coombe to face, and persevere through, completely foreign obstacles.
Coombe played for several teams throughout her career. She ended her playing career with Reading FC, now a part of the Barclays FA Women’s Soccer League. After five years on the pitch there, she transitioned into technical roles serving as the club’s Director of Coaching for the Reading FC Centre of Excellence then later as the Women’s Development Team Manager. During her final season, the club won the FA Premier League Southern Division while the reserve team, coached by Coombe, secured the County Cup.
In 2014, Coombe left Reading, a club which played a mere hour south of her English hometown, in search of new opportunities across the pond. In the United States, Coombe went on to serve as the Girls Director of Coaching for Everton America CT based out of Norwalk, Connecticut. After a successful four-year stint, she made another move – this time to New York Soccer Club. An official Sky Blue FC Girls Development Academy Partner at the time, NYSC is well known for its ability to develop and place players with top university teams as well as professional academies and youth national teams. Coombe played a major role in both aspects, serving as the Director of Scouting and the Development Academy coach.
On September 4, 2019, newly named full-time General Manager Alyse LaHue announced Coombe would be joining Sky Blue FC as the interim Head Coach for the remainder of the 2019 season. Over this five-game stretch Sky Blue went 1-3-1, including a road win over Reign FC (now OL Reign). “Personally, I thought we were successful in terms of the players seeming to be really on board with the style of play and how we were trying to play the games,” Coombe said of the matches, speaking to Equalizer Soccer. “We had some good performances in terms of getting points on the board but also we had some strong performances against some top teams which didn’t necessarily lend themselves to a result, or three points, but definitely in terms of the way we played the games (were) very positive and a lot to take from it.”
Following this promising, albeit brief, campaign Coombe was officially announced as the next Head Coach of Sky Blue FC. “We are thrilled to continue the work we began with Freya this past season as this club continues to progress and push forward,” said LaHue in the club’s official announcement on December 17, 2019. “She is the embodiment of the culture we’re striving to develop, and I’m excited to have her back as we build a new future for Sky Blue.”
This new future, marked by the appointments of LaHue and Coombe to the team’s helm, would also include the official move from Yurcak Field on the campus of Rutgers University to Red Bull Arena and Red Bull Training Facility, and fresh faces both on and off the pitch. Coombe also brought with her a unique take on the team’s style of play. “We’re really focusing on the attacking third and being a lot more offensive,” Coombe explained to northjersey.com back in February.
This offensive shift was apparent in the roster additions and changes made over the course of the off season. In January, Sky Blue acquired forwards Midge Purce from Portland Thorns FC, Mallory Pugh from the Washington Spirit, and Ifeoma Onumonu from OL Reign as well as midfielder McCall Zerboni from the North Carolina Courage. Purce was a breakout star of the 2019 season for Portland scoring eight goals for the club and has made her senior debut with the U.S. Women’s National Team. Pugh was a 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year finalist and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion with 56 caps with the USWNT to her name at the time of signing. Onumonu was acquired from OL Reign brining with her international experience with the U-23 Women’s National Team. Zerboni added experience to the roster with two NWSL Championships under her belt and 13 years of professional experience.
The 2020 NWSL College Draft further enhanced Coombe’s growing team with the acquisition of numerous sought after players. With their first pick, Sky Blue selected the All American Conference (AAC) all-time record holder for goals Evelyne Viens out of the University of South Florida. Viens was followed by Penn State’s Kaleigh Riehl who finished her college career with the NCAA record in minutes played by a field player. Sky Blue secured one of, if not the, highest ranking goalkeepers of the 2020 draft class with the selection of Mandy McGlynn out of Virginia Tech. The club’s last pick went to Chantelle Swaby of Rutgers who started all three games for Jamaica at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. As of June 2020, all four players have been officially signed to Sky Blue.
This March, Coombe announced the first four members of her technical staff. Becca Moros would serve as the First Assistant Coach bringing with her a wealth of playing experience including six years in the NWSL (with the Portland Thorns, Houston Dash, and FC Kansas City/Utah Royals FC), two years in the Japanese Nadeshiko League, and three years in Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS). Prior to embarking on her professional career, Moros was a four-year starter and captain for the Duke University Blue Devils. Dean O’Leary, who also serves as the Asphalt Green Soccer Club of NYC Technical Director, was named the Goalkeeper Coach. O’Leary holds a National Goalkeeping License and Master Coach Diploma from United Soccer Coaches. Philip Congleton joined the club as the High Performance Coach after holding the same position with the James Madison University women’s soccer team while earning a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology.
Rounding out the group was Technical Advisor, Marcia McDermott, who initially joined the club in August 2019. McDermott had previously won a Women’s United Soccer Association Championship as Head Coach of the Carolina Courage and acted as General Manager of the WPS Chicago Red Stars. McDermott, alongside Coombe and LaHue, was integral in determining the team’s approach to the 2020 NWSL College Draft. The group was finalized with the naming of Becki Tweed as the Second Assistant Coach ahead of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Tweed played professionally in both England and the United States before helping lead the Monmouth University Hawks to a conference title in 2017. Tweed has also coached multiple girls’ teams at STA Soccer Academy in Morristown, New Jersey.
Despite the momentum Coombe was building this past off season, her first full season came to an impasse when the COVID-19 pandemic drew sports, and much of daily life, to a screeching halt. Despite unprecedented challenges, including the enforcement of strict social distancing guidelines and the closure of athletic facilities, Coombe and her team resolved to support their players while continuing to prepare for what the remainder of the season might bring. “I think the key is trying to keep as much structure as possible,” Coombe told Sky Blue staff during the peak of quarantine. “We’re doing daily Zoom calls and check-ins with players and providing them fitness plans and having the medical staff checking in. We’re trying to keep it to a similar time of day, trying to build structure into the athlete’s days as much as possible.”
With no new games to review, the technical staff took the opportunity to review old clips from every possible approach. “I’ve watched the same game probably eight times, looking at it from different player angles, then reviewing that game with the players,” Coombe said. Players also had the opportunity engage in more in-depth discussions with the technical staff. “We’re doing a lot of film with the players right now, using this time as an opportunity to go through their game and really focus on them as a player and as an individual.”
So far, Coombe’s resiliency appears to be paying off. “I think we used the time quite wisely to help maximize our time when we got back together,” Coombe said of their regimented zoom and distance workout schedules. “A great credit to the staff during the lockdown period. How well they were able to check in with the players, how the medical staff had been able to do daily or weekly check ins and the trainers being able to work with the players over Zoom and get them physically fit and do it as a group so that they’re pushing each other and we can build on that mentality even when we’re not physically together.”
Although operating under never seen before limitations, such as individual then small group only trainings, the addition of a set schedule has offered much relief. “It’s about being flexible and just concentrating on the key things and the key principles on how we want to play and just focus on those and not try to do anything too big in this first season,” Coombe said in recognition of the distinct changes being made for the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. “We simply don’t have the time to be able to prepare in the same way and personally just being flexible.” The Challenge Cup offers Head Coach Coombe the opportunity to highlight the work she, and those around her have done, not just this quarantine, but behind the scenes this off season. With the schedules and roster set, all that is left to do is play, and for Coombe the sky is quite literally the limit.