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A Sky Blue FC game through the eyes of a 10-year-old and her grandmother

I took my niece and my mom to their first pro women’s soccer game on Sunday in Piscataway, N.J. They loved it.

All I needed to do to get my mom on board with going to a Sky Blue FC game was to tell her that Carli Lloyd would be playing. My mom’s love for the U.S. women’s national team veteran dates back a couple World Cups/Olympics now when she first heard there was a South Jersey player on the team.

“She’s from Delran, which is close to where I live and I love watching her play,” my mom said on the car ride home after seeing Lloyd score twice in a 2-2 draw with the Portland Thorns. “She’s a fantastic soccer player.”

My mom, who has been dragged to hundreds of baseball games all over the country since she started dating one of her customers (my dad) from the McDonald’s she worked at in Kansas in the ‘70s, had never been to a professional women’s sporting event. As the mother of three boys, I’m not sure she had ever seen a woman play soccer in person at all.

“It was just neat seeing them, they’re such good players, the moves and everything else and the teamwork,” my mom said. “Their strength, oh my, unbelievable.”

My 10-year-old niece was also experiencing her first professional women’s soccer game on Sunday night. Even before they took their seats in the bleachers at Yurcak Field on the campus of Rutgers University, she was thanking me for bringing her and buying her a ticket. I lost count of how many times she said thank you on the way home before we even left the campus.

“It was amazing,” she said more than a handful of times as well.

My niece is an avid Philadelphia Union fan. When the other kids at her South Jersey elementary school are wearing Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers gear to designated Philly sports days, my niece proudly wears her Union shirt. On the way to the game, she told me all about the teachers she’s had who also like the Union, including a fourth grade teacher who had a corner of her classroom devoted to the team.

Going for a walk at halftime on Sunday on the much smaller concourse than at Talen Energy Stadium, my niece confessed that she liked being at the Sky Blue game “a little” more than the Union. She said she liked that she was so close to the action, that there were so many girls in the stands and that everywhere she looked on the field she saw a strong female role model.

Art and music have been my niece’s passions since she was very young, but during our halftime walk she couldn’t help but dream out loud a bit with me about how cool it would be to be a professional soccer player. As she talked, it occurred to me how much I took for granted this very thing she was describing when I was a kid growing up in small towns in Ohio and South Jersey. It wasn’t hard to imagine myself hitting the winning shot, throwing out a baserunner or making a game-saving tackle because every sport I saw on TV was played by men I imagined myself looking like one day. It took my niece seeing some of the best soccer players in the world in person to truly bring that to life for her.

After the game ended and I went to the mixed zone to get some post-game interviews, my niece and mom waited with the line of other young fans holding posters, jerseys and other memorabilia to get signed and she ended up getting a few signatures, including one from Bucks County native Jen Hoy.

“She went to Princeton!” my niece explained to me when talking about Hoy.

My mom, who it’s worth mentioning is a retired elementary school teacher and Little League World Series fanatic, loved seeing so many young people so enthusiastic about the game and the sport her two older boys played as kids.

“It was so exciting hearing all these kids cheering on Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and their other favorite players,” my mom said.

Sky Blue FC had a dreadful season last year, winning only one game and made news for all the wrong reasons when players started to speak out about off the field issues with the club. Some Thorns fans in attendance drew attention to the controversy, holding up a homemade sign that read “Thorns Fans 4 Good Management League Wide.” The Sky Blue team on the field did look like an upgrade in an end-to-end game that was entertaining viewing for the 1,300-plus announced attendance.

Still, it’s clear there’s much work to be done to bring Sky Blue FC up to the level of many of their NWSL rivals. For as much as my niece and mom liked the experience, Yurcak Field is a pretty bare bones venue for professional soccer that isn’t necessarily reflected in the ticket prices ($50 for general admission seems a bit high for two tickets to sit on bleachers though only $5 to park is a good perk). Sunday’s 6 p.m. kick-off made it do-able for a school night and kept it from having to compete with a Philadelphia Union or New York Red Bulls game, but the attendance was the lowest of all the league’s games over the weekend.

None of these things really occupied any space or time with my niece or my mom during or after the game. They were too busy enjoying the moments of brilliance on display and the flurry of first half goals to get too worried about the things those of us who cover and follow the ins and outs of the game occupy our time thinking about and discussing.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you Uncle Matt,” my niece said as I dropped her and my mom off after the 70-minute drive. “That was the best.”