Pals look to boost Sky Blue fortunes

In their four years at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, neither Tobin Heath nor Casey Nogueira experienced much turmoil. In fact, during their stay from 2006-09, the duo was part of four Atlantic Coast Conference championships and three national titles.

Upon the completion of their collegiate careers, however, their soccer careers have had their fair share of bumps.

For Heath, 2010 started off great, getting drafted by the then expansion Atlanta Beat with the first overall selection of the Women‘s Professional Soccer Draft. However, Heath suffered an injury in the Beat’s third match which sidelined her for the rest of the season.

As for Nogueira, she was selected by the Los Angeles Sol with the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft.

Not too long after, the Sol folded and Nogueira was picked up by the Chicago Red Stars in the Sol Dispersal Draft. In 24 games played (12 of which were starts), Nogueira totaled three goals and four assists for a Red Stars team that failed to make the playoffs. Chicago announced in December 2010 they would not participate in WPS during the 2011 season and Nogueira was without a team.

For both Heath and Nogueira, their calendar year of 2010 ended with signing on to play for WPS inaugural champion Sky Blue FC.

“My first WPS season was a bust,” said Heath, a Basking, N.J., native who was dealt by Atlanta to the New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC on Dec. 10 of last year. “I was thrilled to get traded to Jersey.”

“When I went to Chicago, I didn’t know what to think,” Nogueira said. During the 2010 campaign, the Red Stars went through three coaches. “I was sad Chicago didn’t return (for 2011), I enjoyed that team a lot, but that said, I’m happy to be with Sky Blue and be around people I’m familiar with.”

If anything, the two former Tar Heels are having the time of their lives playing alongside each other.

“Lifestyle off the field influences your play on the field,” said Heath, who has played in 10 games this season. “We’re having a blast.”

In Nogueira’s eyes, to have success in the women’s game, it’s more about the bond shared with each other than individual talent.

“In the women’s game, chemistry is a huge factor in team success,” said Nogueira. “UNC was such a family atmosphere; we have that at Sky Blue.”

But during the Women’s World Cup, Sky Blue had its struggles, without Heather O’Reilly, Heath and others. In the games played during the time of the tournament, Sky Blue went 0-2-1.

However, Nogueira, who was left off the U.S. roster, started showing her skills. Now through 16 games played, the Raleigh, N.C., native has tallied five goals.

“Casey is a genius on the ball; she’s very creative,” said Heath of her best friend. “At any moment, she can do anything. She can create goals for herself, or create them for others. And I think she can continue to improve.”

Meanwhile, Heath, who considers this, her second season, to be her first, was in Germany, getting into four of the United States’ matches. While she has cracked into the U.S. roster, she hasn’t been able to solidify her role with Sky Blue and coach Jim Gabarra.

“However I can help and make an impact on this team is my mindset,” said Heath.

“Coach (Gabarra) sees me coming off the bench; anytime I get to play, I’m thrilled.”

One thing is for sure, though, moving forward: the women’s game is changing. That was evident as we all watched the United States play France and Japan in the semifinals and final of the World Cup this summer. Those two aforementioned teams were supremely technical, with plenty of skill on the ball.

If that’s the way the women’s game is headed, then Heath and Nogueira can book their tickets to Canada for the 2015 World Cup.

Heath and Nogueira pride themselves on the technical aspect of the game and appreciate the direction women’s soccer is headed.

“The women’s game is definitely changing,” said Nogueira. “It’s exciting for me to see the possession game, it‘s all I want to play. If the US is going in that direction, I think they could use someone like me, or at least Tobin.”

Meanwhile, Heath was at the tournament and got to see the evolution of the game first hand.

“I was stoked about the World Cup. I felt inspired to see the evolution of the game. It is great for the women’s game and it will continue to get better; I’m excited about it and women’s soccer progressing

Whether it progresses in WPS or not, surely Heath and Nogueira will be part of the growth. If the league were to turn for the worse, they already have their minds set on where they would continue their development.

“It’s critical for our country and our game to have a league here. We want to keep it in our own country,” Heath said. “If WPS folds – which would be really unfortunate – I think Europe would be the only option (for a place to play).” Nogueira concurs.

“That’s the best option,” said Nogueira. “The best competition and leagues are in Germany and Sweden, and it’s probably the best option for those serious about playing.”

For now, WPS is still alive and kicking, and there‘s a great playoff race with Sky Blue FC right in the middle of it all.

Going into this week’s WPS Game of the Week on FOX Soccer Sky Blue FC (5-7-4, 19 pts) is clinging to fourth place, just three points behind magic Jack and three points ahead of the fifth-place Boston Breakers (magicJack and Boston battle each other in Massachusetts Saturday at 7 p.m.). A win and any non-win scenario with Boston would clinch a spot in the postseason for SBFC. However, if Sky Blue intends to get closer to that playoff berth, they’ll need to beat a Philadelphia Independence (10-3-3, 33 pts) side that is desperately in need of wins to clinch first place and home field for the WPS Championship.

Kickoff at Widener University in Chester, Penn., is set for 6 p.m. EDT.