Paige Monaghan is a forward for Sky Blue FC of the NWSL. Ahead of the NWSL’s Fall Series, we sat down with her to talk about training and competing during a pandemic, representing New Jersey as a ‘hometown kid’, and what to expect from Sky Blue FC over these next few months.

Almost a year ago last week, you recorded two goals to beat Chicago and cemented yourself as one of the league’s rising stars. Can you talk a little bit about what your first season as a professional athlete was like?

Thinking back to my rookie year, I always knew I could fit in and I also knew I could thrive, but it’s one of those things where you’re trying to get your feet wet. You’re trying to figure out to the point that you ask yourself, “Do others believe in me? More importantly, do I believe in myself? What matters? What doesn’t?”

And I think that Chicago game was that moment of showing what I can do, what I’m going to do, and what I’m determined to do. For me, it just gave me the confidence to show that I can score in games and not just in practice. Looking back, my rookie year was definitely all about getting my feet wet, but also showing me that I need to have this inner confidence to thrive in the NWSL.

So your rookie year comes to a close, and right as you’re about to head into your sophomore season, the world pauses and the NWSL season is postponed. Can you talk about your mindset when all of that happened and what it was like to train and prepare during a pandemic? 

Yeah. It’s kind of crazy to think back on this year for both Sky Blue and myself. I think we built momentum towards the end of last year. And then in the offseason, I was super determined. I got invited to National Camp with U-23s and then I got invited to the ID camp. It was like all of the pieces were coming together, and I was getting recognized for my accomplishments and play, but then obviously, as everything was happening with COVID, there was a lot of uncertainty and it looked like we weren’t going to have a season at all.

I just tried to make the most of what I had while training at home. Sky Blue prepared us well and we had our online workouts, Zoom calls, meetings, and all of that stuff. I also took a page out of our assistant coach Becca Moros’ book and made my own FootyBoard since I couldn’t physically work with her. I’d practice with that in my backyard with my dog, run in my neighborhood, do hills, and stuff like that. Basically did whatever I could from home.

Initially, there was a lot of uncertainty. Like, what are we doing? Is this actually going to happen? We’re going to Utah for what? In a bubble? But at the end of the day, I knew that no matter the circumstance, I wanted to be the best version of myself and the best soccer player I could be. So I had to dig deep and really looking at myself and say, “Okay, am I going to make an excuse and sit on the couch, or am I going to make the most out of this?”

I’m also very fortunate to have my family throughout all of this. Some days honestly sucked, but they would always be there to hilariously cheer me on, even during some of those tough sprint workouts up and down my street. So, having their support plus a really hard look at myself, I knew that at the end of the day, I just wanted to be better.

So after a few months of isolated training, you head off to Utah for the NWSL Challenge Cup. What was life like for you when you got to the bubble? 

We had pretty strict protocols to follow. Every day felt a little Groundhog’s Day-y, but it was like, wake up, temperature check, symptoms check, meals together, go to training, come back, meals again, meetings, dinner, bed. And then sometimes there were games, but that was basically it, over and over.

Bubble life honestly felt a little dorm-like, a bit like college, which honestly, I enjoyed and I think our team did a really good job just making the most of it. We all were on the same floor together and we would hang out, watch a lot of Netflix, watch NWSL games, watch MLS games, host ping pong tournaments, and doing pretty much anything we could. I’m more of a relaxer and FaceTimed some family and friends, but yeah, the bubble was interesting. We really only went from the hotel to the soccer field because they wanted to guarantee our safety. We couldn’t go out for coffee, all of our meals were catered, but really we just hung out and shared a lot of meals together. That’s kind of the simple answer because there really wasn’t a lot going on.

Safety was the priority, so ‘simple’ is definitely a positive in this situation. 

Right, right. I think other leagues had different things. I know some of the MLS guys, they went golfing. We didn’t have that. Our bubble was just our hotel. And it was funny because when you would go to training, you’d see other teams and it was almost like summer camp because you’re like, “Hi!” to your friends, but you only can wave and you can’t hug each other. But yeah, we liked hanging around the coffee truck. That was our time to mingle.

Aside from hotel bubble life, there was also a tournament to compete in. Can you talk us through what Sky Blue’s expectations were going into this Challenge Cup? And now that it’s over, what are the takeaways? 

We had big plans for this year, especially after last year and how we wanted to play. We had people who wanted to be here. We made some awesome trades. And we had all of these people who really wanted to buy into us, our team, staff, and the whole organization.

But again, it was like everything we wanted to do, we had to do in a short span. So we went in committed to who we wanted to be and how we wanted to play. We wanted to keep the ball and just stick to our game. And even though we didn’t score a lot of goals, which as a forward is frustrating because you’d love to score four goals a game and walk away, we were committed to just play how we wanted to play, and I think coming out of this tournament, this was a big building block for us.

I didn’t walk away from the tournament thinking we played our best soccer ever, but I also didn’t leave saying that we were trying to be someone we weren’t. We stuck with who we wanted to be, how we wanted to play and I think that’s just a good addition going forward for whatever’s next to come. We’ll build on that, and one point of emphasis will be scoring goals.

Most definitely. This tournament was truly a test given during the direst of circumstances. So regardless of the outcome, this is something you’ll all look back upon and can really be proud of. 

Definitely. And honestly, I hope we can do it again in some way or form, which sounds so weird because going into it, I did not think I’d ever say that again, but it really was a gritty tournament and just taught me a lot. It taught our team a lot, too.

Thinking back, I had some interviews there and people were like, “Oh, you guys aren’t scoring goals.” But it’s almost like if you think of Sky Blue last year and how we got better over time, you saw that watching us in March versus October was like watching two completely different teams. So, given that we had to perform in such a short time, I’d say that we’re all very proud of what we put together and I’m just really excited for our team moving forward.

So you said you’d be down for a Bubble: Round 2? 

Totally. Maybe Hawaii for the next one would be fun. I mean, they did a great job putting this together, but maybe next time we can be by a beach or something more of my style.

Switching gears, playing for Sky Blue definitely hits home for you as one of the local kids on the roster. So as a ‘Jersey girl through and through’, can you tell us what it’s like to play for your home state and what it will be like to play in front of them at Red Bull Arena?

Looking back at last year and being able to play at Rutgers and at Red Bull Arena, it’s definitely surreal. I think Jersey people are Jersey. I know that sounds silly, but I think there’s a lot of pride in living in New Jersey and for women’s sports in New Jersey, and I’m honored to be a part of it.

It was really cool to see so many younger fans, people from my hometown, and people who watched me when I was younger come up after games and say that they can’t believe that I’ve grown into this woman and that I’m playing for this club. I’m just so honored to be one of the hometown kids for Sky Blue and I always have such a fun time playing here in New Jersey.

Ideally, I hope to do this for as long as I can. Jersey people are just… Jersey! I know that sounds funny, but only it’s something that only Jersey people would really understand.

The team recently returned to training. What has that been like after the mini-break following the Challenge Cup?

It’s kind of funny. Once we got back and saw each other again, we were like, “So what’s been new?” because we went from living together for over a month to then not seeing each other at all. Honestly, I think everyone needed some time off just to decompress, reflect. But training has been good. The energy and commitment that this group has, even with all of the injuries and overseas loans, has been amazing. I’m really excited for our whole team to be back together. We’re all so committed to getting better and I think everyone really wants to put in the work, wants to learn, wants to grow, and is excited for whatever comes next.

Next up, you’ll be heading into this Fall Series with a few games slated for this season. What are your expectations for this mini-season? 

We have some great games to play against Chicago and Washington and expect to use them as another building block to show who we are at Sky Blue. Even though some of our players are abroad or hurt, we still expect to play our game at the same level we brought to the Challenge Cup.

The bubble had a lot of games in a short amount of time, whereas this is more spread out. This time around, we will also have more time to actually train and prepare for teams. I’m looking forward to playing games with my teammates because I know how hard we all have been training, on and off the field. So it’s really exciting to just put on my uniform and head to battle with them again this fall.

Looking even further, what are some of your goals for 2021 as you look towards year 3?

So, I am a big goals person. I have my lists for what I do every day, what I need to get done, and what I want to accomplish. But for going forward, I really want to make an impact with Sky Blue, I want to make an impact in the NWSL, and I want to be wearing that US crest. So, I have a lot to do before then and I’m just so excited to grow and develop as a player.