NWSL Challenge Cup: How Sabrina Flores aims to usher a winning era for Sky Blue FC

    It’s no secret that Sky Blue FC were in the midst of a big transition from a meager 5,000-seat stadium at Rutgers to the state-of-the-art facilities of Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls before the coronavirus pandemic struck and derailed their 2020 plans.

    The team was able to play one National Women’s Soccer League game in the arena during 2019 as post-World Cup momentum swept the nation. Sky Blue FC have not had a chance to play games in their new home, and on Saturday, they’ll be looking for their first win of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup against tournament hosts Utah Royals FC — you can stream on CBS All Access

    Part of that transition involves Sky Blue FC general manager Alyse LaHue doing her best to put the players first and winning back the trust and support of fans after reports revealed problems within the club involving housing, travel and training facilities. The news created a public outcry on social media from fans calling for bettering of club conditions for the players.

    “They are so forgiving if you are willing to be honest with them, and talk about the process and be open and include them as part of the process,” LaHue told Meg Linehan of The Athletic last September on winning back the fan base. “I think we have lacked inclusion for our fans for a very long time, on a really meaningful level. It’s time to bring them back into the conversation.”

    Sky Blue FC won just five games last season, an improvement from their one-win 2018 campaign. The team acquired Midge Purce and McCall Zerboni in the offseason, and headed into the draft with a new coach in Freya Coombe and multiple first-round picks. They used some of their assets to trade for USWNT regular Mallory Pugh. All these moves have put the club in a better position to turn things around and start winning and getting better results on the pitch.

    As the NWSL navigated its way through the pandemic and ultimately moved forward with the Challenge Cup, Sky Blue FC continued to build their roster, which included the signing of New Jersey native Sabrina Flores to a two-year deal.

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    Flores, 24, made her NWSL reunion after a brief spell in Spain for Sevilla FC from September of 2019 until the league was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic a few months ago. Prior to that, the defender played a handful of games as a national team replacement player for Sky Blue FC in 2019, which meant her time with the team was during a specific window of the NWSL schedule as national team players returned to play after international duty in the 2019 World Cup.

    In an interview with CBS Sports, Flores credits the overseas experience with enhancing her skills and knowledge. Pushing herself out of her comfort zone, playing with an assortment of international players abroad and adapting to new cultures and styles of play have aided her in her ultimate goal of landing a full NWSL contract.

    “When I left Sky Blue, my goal was to of course impact Sevilla, but my ultimate goal was to use [2019] to grow […] so that I could come back eventually and play in NWSL,” said Flores. “I had that goal in the back of mind as I was facing some of the challenges in Sevilla … because I knew that ultimately I wanted to come back here in NWSL and earn a full contract, not just as a national team replacement player.”

    Flores is the type of player that Sky Blue FC won’t necessarily build around, but can build with. A defensive player local to New Jersey, with a level of commitment and buy-in that hasn’t always existed for the club. Flores explained why it won’t be on a one-person job to usher this team into a winning era.

    “It’s going to take everyone,” Flores said. “That idea, that every moving part is essential. That’s kind of what our team vision is. Every player on the field, no matter if you’re a starter or a game-changer coming off the bench. No matter if you’re a coach, or a physical therapist. Every person has an instrumental role and is trying to fulfill that role to the best of their ability to make all the moving parts work together, and that’s going to be the reason why we do well in the tournament and why Sky Blue is going to prosper in the coming years.”

    As a result to a minor injury suffered by another player on the roster, Coombe gave Flores the start in the Challenge Cup opener, a scoreless draw against OL Reign. Flores admitted she was caught off guard by the inclusion to the starting XI and was eager to show her impact right away.

    “I had nerves but I also had the experiences of having played last year, and I honestly think that is what settled my nerves a lot.” Flores said. “I hadn’t played in this league for such a long time. I trusted the process, my coaches, and my teammates for believing in me and giving me the opportunity.”

    Flores played her natural role as an outside back. She had the most touches (82) on the ball out of the entire back line, along with the most tackles (four). While Sky Blue FC continues to look for answers offensively, they might have found an additional solution in Flores, who led the team with chances created (two).

    Flores’ collegiate days at Notre Dame and her youth national team years have prepared and helped her grow comfortable in the outside back role. Most notably, she made the United States roster on the U-20 level — alongside Sky Blue FC teammate Mallory Pugh and NWSL players Ashley Sanchez and Casey Murphy — during the 2015 CONCACAF Championship and 2016 FIFA World Cup where she had the opportunity to square off against her twin sister Monica, who plays for Mexico. 

    The American-born Mexican never capped at the senior level with the United States. She’s been invited to train with the Mexican national team after no longer receiving invites to U.S. national team camp. Contrary to the perceived notion that she’s made the federation switch to Mexico, Flores told CBS Sports that is not the case. She’s keeping an open mind when it comes to competing on the international stage and is focused on the next opportunity ahead of her.

    Flores represents a strong contingent of Latin-American players to participate in the Utah tournament. For her, it’s bigger than the Latin presence in the league — she wants to expand and inspire a cultural change within the sport. 

    “I think it’s special to see how the game has grown,” Flores said. “Of course you’re representing your team and you feel pride — but it’s more than that. It’s about growing the game and growing our [Latin-American] culture within women’s sports as well.

    “I feel proud to be a part of [it]. When I’m stepping on the field and I see other players with similar backgrounds and roots doing well, it’s just powerful,” Flores said. “To be able to grow the game by playing it.

    “By having this platform, we’re not only fulfilling our dreams, but we’re inspiring everyone like ourselves that it’s possible and we want to see more growth.”

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