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2018 NWSL Team Preview: Royals setting tone off the field, but can they do the same on it?

Photo: Utah Royals

Utah Royals FC
2017:  N/A
Head Coach: Laura Harvey (1st season with Royals)
Home Ground:  Rio Tinto Stadium

’17 in Review:  After years of speculation, the ownership of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake threw its hat in the WoSo ring. On November 16, owner Dell Loy Hansen announced that the NWSL was officially coming to Utah and that the club — eventually named Utah Royals FC — would play home matches at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Royals will not only share Rio Tinto with Real Salt Lake, but the club embarked on a construction project to build the women’s side its own locker rooms.

Hansen, while acknowledging that he does not control the salary cap for NWSL or for MLS, has said the Royals would otherwise be treated as exact equals to Real Salt Lake, and early returns are that he is living up to his word’

“It’s been a bit of the shift for the players. They’re so used to having to do so much for themselves that having people around them that are doing that for them is foreign to them,” head coach Laura Harvey said. “It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for them just to get used to having that support mechanism around them to just wake up in the morning and be a soccer player.”

What’s New:  Four days after announcing the team, NWSL folded FC Kansas City, acquired all player contracts, and then transferred those contracts to the Royals (in other words, the Royals took the FCKC franchise but did not buy them directly). Some key players, like Becky Sauerbrunn, Nicole Barnhart and Desiree Scott made the jump to Utah. Amy Rodriguez, who has played one match over the last two seasons interrupted by pregnancy and a torn ACL, is also in Utah.

As for brand new acquisitions, Kelley O’Hara was the top domestic addition in a trade with Sky Blue, and the European duo of Elise Thorsnes (Norway) and Gunnhildur Jonsdottir (Iceland) will be vital if the club is to score often enough. The Royals also added Abby Smith from the Breakers’ dispersal draft. Smith figures to be the long-term starter in Utah and should get some early chances with Barnhart in the final stages of recovery from offseason surgery.

Harvey is also new. In one of the magical coaching carousel moves, Harvey left the Reign and recommended Vlatko Andonovski as her successor. After a few international jobs failed to materialize, Harvey was courted and signed by the Royals — taking over the core of the team formerly coached by Andonovski.

Gone from the FCKC core are Shea Groom and Christina Gibbons, traded to Sky Blue for O’Hara, and Brittany Taylor Kolmel who announced recently that she was taking some time away from soccer. Harvey stressed that she has not retired.

If things click:  Harvey says the Royals feel like a brand new team, but she also says that not much will change in her philosophy from her five seasons in Seattle, where the Reign won back-to-back Shields in 2014 and 2015.

“I’m a purist,” she said. “I believe in the way things should be played. I didn’t really change too much in Seattle whether times were good or bad, and I don’t think that I’ll change too much here.

“I want the philosophy to be that we’re hard to beat, and a possession-oriented team. And then it’s about finding the right personnel to fit that style. I think we’re really close to having that.”

The fulcrums of the offense and defense are both nursing injuries though so it may take the Royals a bit more time than most to start firing on all cylinders.  In the back, Becky Sauerbrunn opened the year battling a stress reaction in her foot. It kept her out of two USWNT camps, but she is close to being ready to take her usual place anchoring back lines for club and country.

“She’s a fantastic pro,” Harvey said. “She wants to learn and she wants to be better every day. Just her composure and her ability to defend has been exceptional. When she’s come in to training she’s been (excellent) every single day. She’s been great.”

Up top, Rodriguez is clearly meant to be the focal point, but she opens the season on the disabled list following ACL surgery nearly a year ago. Last year, Rodriguez looked like her old self in her return from maternity leave, but that lasted less than an hour before her ACL popped. Now she is nearly back again, attempting to play regularly for the first time since scoring the only goal in FC Kansas City’s 2015 NWSL Championship win.

“She’s into full training now and we’re pushing for that home opener (April 14) as the first time we’ll see her on the field,” Harvey said.

“She’s a winner,” Harvey continued when asked if she has seen glimpses of Rodriguez’s best. “She wants to be back where she was. She’s determined to push on and show that she can still score goals at this level. You can’t knock her record. She’s played two seasons in this league (one game in 2017 notwithstanding) and won a championship in both of those seasons. I don’t doubt that once she’s fully healthy, and she’s not far away from that now, the things she can prove. She proved them last year in that single game that she played. I don’t doubt that she’s going to come back and have the ability to do that.”

Even if Rodriguez finds the scoring touch again, the rest of the roster is not exactly filled with scorers. Harvey, who said that her No. 9 players have not necessarily scored goals in bunches, knows that her side will have to figure things out in the final third.

“Gunny (Jonsdottir) as a midfielder has the opportunity to (score). Elise Thorsnes has the ability to score goals and proven that in Australia during the offseason. Diana Matheson is fully fit now, played a lot of minutes recently. When she’s fully fit and healthy she always adds a few goals to the teams that she plays for. Katie Stengel has been doing really well in preseason. I expect when she is in and around goal she will find the opportunity to score.

“But we’ll need to be a team that shares the wealth a little bit.”

What the opponents think

The Equalizer has asked members of NWSL coaching staffs to comment on opposition clubs around the league. They were all promised anonymity.

“Little bit of work to do in Utah. They obviously have an excellent coach. She knows what works. I’m sure she’s trying to pinpoint what the weaknesses are.”


“Utah has got potential to be a very good team. Obviously a lot of changes happened. It all depends on how well they mesh.”


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