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Lauletta: After 15 games, the Amy Rodriguez experiment gets terminated

Utah Royals coach Amy Rodriguez watches her team from the sidelines.
Photo Copyright Orlando Ramirez for USA TODAY Sports

Fifteen games into their existence, the Utah Royals are already changing course. Even one of the club’s best performances of the season on Saturday, a scoreless draw in which the Royals outshot, out-chanced, and out-Xgd (by more than double) the Thorns, was not enough to save the regime. On Sunday the Royals ushered out their 1.0 era when they fired head coach Amy Rodriguez and announced that president Michelle Hyncik was leaving to pursue new opportunities.

Rodriguez and Hyncik were high school teammates in California who reunited to help get the new iteration of the Royals off the ground. It made for good copy, and attached Rodriguez’s name to the franchise, but those alone do not put a winning side on the pitch. Even Rodriguez, who was on a coaching path, admitted she was surprised when Hyncik reached out to reconnect, saying she didn’t think she was the type to be a candidate for such a job.

In comments published last year in the Salt Lake Tribute, Hycnik was quoted as saying the reason she wanted Rodriguez was because she could help empower and uplift women.

“I think that’s what the new era of NWSL is all about, is empowering and lifting other women,” Hycnik said in the Tribute. Rodriguez came on board and began publicly selling that she wanted only humble and hardworking players.

Nice as that all sounds, and important as it is, those talking points will win you exactly zero soccer games. And the Royals are painfully close to having that many wins through 15 games. Their maiden win in March over the Courage was the product of an Ally Sentnor worldie and consecutive penalty misses by the Courage on a day the Royals were badly outplayed. Their win over expansion sisters Bay FC was more legitimate but they followed it up with a 6-0 loss in Orlando when it appeared the team stopped trying to defend in the final 10 minutes.

“This expansion season has been full of lessons and learnings, and we are now focused on reorganizing leadership efforts on and off the pitch,” John Kimball said in the release announcing the changes.

Kimball is the president of Real Salt Lake and will oversee business operations on the Royals side until Hycnik’s replacement is hired. Assistant Jimmy Coenraets has been named interim head coach.

“We are grateful and appreciative of Amy, Michelle and Maryse (Bard-Martel, goalkeeper coach, also dismissed Sunday) and their efforts in helping re-introduce the Royals to Utah’s incredible fans and the international soccer community,” Kimball continued.  “We believe women’s sports are a vital part of Utah’s culture.  Our club and ownership group are committed to delivering a product our fans will be proud of. While we have faced adversity this season, we are focused on building a team off and on the field that can compete at the highest levels for years to come.”

There will be questions about whether Rodriguez got a fair shake as a head coach. They are fair to an extent. The Royals took a passive approach to roster building and their position at the bottom of the table is reflective of having the worst roster in the National Women’s Soccer League. Recent additions of Amandine Henry through trad and Ana Tejada on the international market have spawned improvement, but the fact remains the team has scored seven goals in 15 matches. By contrast, the Current have goals from 17 different players including 11 just from Temwa Chawinga.  Two other players—Sophia Smith and Barbra Banda—have also outscored the Royals.

More than not scoring goals, the Royals under Amy Rodriguez did not seem to have many attacking ideas. Considering the goal-scoring chops of Rodriguez the player, it is unthinkable that she could be in charge of a side so far from playing pretty soccer.

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No. 1 overall pick Ally Sentnor has shown signs of being a very good player but has too often dribbled into the attacking third and looked out of sorts in terms of whether to hold up play, shoot, or find a teammate. She scored twice, both times from distance, and both times in the month of March.  No. 4 pick Brecken Mozingo has to be considered a disappointment so far especially considering how deep this year’s draft class has performed so far.

The defense had its moments. Injuries, particularly the early season-ender to Imani Dorsey, have thrust young players like Laura Flynn and Zoe Burns into the fire and they have performed admirably. Mandy Haught’s style will always make her mistakes look worse than other goalkeepers’ but she has generally been solid in her first run as a long-term starter.

With a 10-point gap to the playoffs, Coenraets is likely to focus on development and trying to figure out how to create goals. His first chance will be Sunday in Seattle where a win will extricate the Royals from last place. The Olympic break starts after that, and along with it comes the Summer Cup. The Royals tournament begins July 19 with another trip to Seattle. They will also play the Thorns and Club Tijuana in pool play.

In a sport that has struggled to place former players in coaching roles, the firing of Rodriguez after a 2-11-2 start is a blow. Six days earlier the Wave fired Casey Stoney who did not play in NWSL but had an international-level career in England. Stoney’s firing also came after a successful run that included a Shield and Challenge Cup. That leaves Bev Yanez in Louisville as the only former player serving as an NWSL head coach.

Listening to the various broadcasts of Royals matches it was clear that Rodriguez knew she was playing the long game with the Royals. Whether there was more progress being made than met the eyes watching them play is impossible to know without being around the team. But it would be a shame if Rodriguez just lost her only chance at a head coaching gig because she was thrown into the fire too soon.

Around the league

Current 2, Dash 0

The Current broke the Reign’s league record with their 17th straight match without defeat and got within one of matching the Reign’s 16 straight from the start of a season. Temwa Chawinga scored both goals, both with some help from Tarciane who endured the worst night of her young NWSL career. Tarciane made a poor decision to try to head a ball back to Jane Campbell allowing Chawinga to capitalize, and later allowed Chawinga to win possession high and get in on a break. The Malawian could well have been in the hat trick club if not for a series of strong saves early from Campbell who again kept the Dash in touch.

Wave 0, Red Stars 3

No coaching-change bounce for the Wave whose form continues to befuddle. Naomi Girma scored a hard-luck own goal to send the Red Stars to the break ahead and Alyssa Naeher made a first-class save on a Jaedyn Shaw equalizer attempt early in the second to keep it that way. The Wave then fell victim to Jameese Joseph. The rookie won a ball in midfield and found Mallory Swanson for 2-0, and later outworked Abby Dahlkemper to get to a ball she had no right being near and finished it herself to complete the scoring.

Louisville 0, Bay 1

Bay continued to play improved defense and took three points home on their first trip to Louisville on Asisat Oshoala’s second-half penalty. The clean sheet was the second in a row for Bay and Katelyn Rowland and they have now gone four games without conceding more than one. The expansion side has won four out of six and has a winning streak for the first time.

Spirit 0, Courage 1

The Courage capitalized on a few strokes of luck to take their first road points of the season. Early on it looked like they would go down a goal but Trinity Rodman’s header toward an empty far post was headed off the line. A little later, Aubrey Kingsbury made a hash of Ashley Sanchez’s knuckling shot and it deflected off her hands and in. The Courage then defended well for the next 71 minutes and stoppage time and Sanchez’s goal on her return to Washington held up. The Courage had been 0-7-0 on the road, last winning on the final day of 2023, also in Washington. The Spirit lost for the first time since May 4.

Royals 0, Thorns 0

In what turned out to be Amy Rodriguez’s final match in charge, the Royals outplayed the Thorns and had a golden chance to win it late but Ifeoma Onumonu’s breakaway attempt was snuffed out by Shelby Hogan. The Thorns keeper also made a strong, first-half save on Dana Foederer. The Thorns are now 1-2-2 since their six-game winning streak and 1-5-3 overall outside that run.

Gotham 1, Reign 1

A week after seeing Laura Harvey’s 100th win go up in smoke during stoppage time, the Reign did the same to Gotham and happily left New Jersey with a point. The equalizer went as an own goal off Nealy Martin who went up to defend Quinn’s long free kick nearly 9 minutes into stoppage. Gotham went ahead on a pleasing combination liking Jenna Nighswonger to Ella Stevens and then Rose Lavelle.

Angel City 0, Pride 3

The Pride matched the Current at 10-0-5 to set up an epic battle of unbeatens Saturday night in Kansas City. Adriana came a crossbar from a first-half hat trick and Barbara Banda added the icing to join Temwa Chawinga atop the Golden Boot race with 11. Adriana scored once on a banger and once on a rebound after Banda had DiDi Haracic going the wrong way to force her into a more difficult save and leaving herself exposed for a second chance. The clean sheet was the third straight for the Pride and Anna Moorhouse.

Free kicks

  • Been trying to think of a more exciting regular season match in NWSL history than Saturday’s Battle of Unbeatens in Kansas City. Both the Current and Pride are 10-0-5 and at least one of them will equal the 2014 Seattle Reign record for unbeaten matches to start a season (the Reign were 13-0-3.) Meanwhile, the Current have already broken, and the Pride equaled, that record for longest unbeaten streak regardless of when. So if the Pride win they will have a chance to break the mark but will have to wait until after the Olympic break. And let’s not forget the Barbra Banda/Temwa Chawinga showdown. The Africans are tied for the league lead with 11 goals.

    As for past games, the Reign-Thorns 2019 season finale comes to mind which was for home field advantage in the semifinals. The Pride-Thorns game earlier this year allowed the Pride to break the league record with their eighth straight. The Thorns at the time had won six straight. An injury to Smith kept her out of that match and took some of the shine off it.

    Another one was a 2015 match between the Dash and Spirit. The Dash were led by Carli Lloyd who had taken her scorching World Cup form back to the NWSL. The Spirit were led by Crystal Dunn, the last omission from that World Cup roster who was in the midst of an MVP season. Dunn for the better of things that day with a first-half hat trick in a 3-1 win.
  • League record streaks are alive:  Sam Staab (105 starts) and Kaleigh Kurtz (6,892 minutes).
  • To last weekend’s column, Wave president Jill Ellis said Casey Stoney’s public complaining was not a factor in her dismissal.
  • More importantly, here are Stoney’s words: 
  • Lost in the commotion of the week is that Bay FC general manager Lucy Rushton resigned from her position. Sporting Director Matt Potter will take over Rushton’s duties for the short term. We’ll see how this one plays out but it is odd for an expansion team to lose its general manager so early on.
  • Per Maura Munno, the Red Stars are about to land Canadian midfielder Julia Grosso.

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