I think this Utah Royals FC group is going to be a hard-working, dynamic group who want to make the game difficult for the opposition to break us down, and we want to put on a show in the end. —Utah Royals FC head coach Laura Harvey
SANDY — There was a bit of irony in Becky Sauerbrunn’s word choice, even if it was perhaps unintentional.
Asked what the last four months have been like as her FC Kansas City franchise of the National Women’s Soccer League was sold and became Utah Royals FC, the United States Women’s National Team stalwart defender first said simply, “a whirwind,” calling to mind the tornadoes that are prevalent in the club’s former home.
But while there’s been much to do to create a new organization here nearly from the ground up (the roster got a head start as many made the move from the midwest) since last November when Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen purchased the franchise, there’s a sense of readiness to get things started as the team prepares for its inaugural season, which begins Saturday on the road against the Orlando Pride.
“Everything has just come together so well, and I think that in large part is due to Dell Loy and just because he absolutely demands perfection, and I think you’ve seen that throughout every single rank,” Sauerbrunn said earlier this week. “I think he wants quality and he knows quality and he demands quality.”
Over the course of the past few months, Hansen’s treatment of the team has become a major talking point around the NWSL, as he had a new locker room built inside Rio Tinto Stadium and has provided unique perks such as housing and cars for players and food at practices, among other things.
For Hansen, the father of seven daughters, his desire to bring an NWSL franchise to the Beehive State is in large part to give the high number of female soccer followers here, especially youngsters, the chance to see a professional team up close.
In terms of the perks, Hansen sees them as a way of compensating players within the bounds of NWSL rules to become more equal with their RSL counterparts given the smaller salary cap available.
“I think we’re bringing the best we possibly can into this market,” Hansen told the Deseret News. “We’ve kind of said, ‘Money is no object right now. Let’s do the best thing and let the cards fall,’ and we have kind of opened our checkbooks and said, ‘What does it take to be the best?’ and if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The club’s head coach, Laura Harvey, has reiterated numerous times since being hired Nov. 27 that it’s now up to her and her players to make it worth Hansen’s investment with their performance on the pitch.
“I think this Utah Royals FC group is going to be a hard-working, dynamic group who want to make the game difficult for the opposition to break us down, and we want to put on a show in the end,” she said this week. “I think we want to try and keep the ball and play good soccer, build through the thirds and hopefully score as many goals as we possibly can.”
In that vein, the Royals’ strength is primed to be at the back, starting with goalkeepers Abby Smith and Nicole Barnhart. The pair finished as the NWSL’s top two ‘keepers in saves a year ago, Barnhart with Kansas City and Smith with the now-defunct Boston Breakers (she was selected by Utah in a dispersal draft after the Breakers folded).
Moving up the field, the back line will be anchored by Sauerbrunn and fellow United States Women’s National Team member Kelley O’Hara, with Scotland Women’s National Team captain Rachel Corsie and Becca Moros also expected to be key cogs.
The midfield will have a heavy international flavor, with Canada’s Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson, Iceland’s Gunny Jonsdottir and New Zealand’s Katrina Gorry some key names to watch as the Royals will look to employ a possession-heavy style of play.
“They just add a different layer of experience,” Sauerbrunn said of the squad’s international players, of which there are 11 in all.
Up front, USWNT veteran Amy Rodriguez isn’t expected to play early on, as she’s still rehabbing from a torn ACL she suffered in the season opener last year with Kansas City, but should be a crucial piece in time (she, along with defender Alex Arlitt, will start the season on the disabled list). Norwegian Elise Thorsnes should also be a primary piece of the Royals attack.
Neither of the team’s two draft picks, former BYU defender Taylor Isom nor former Duke goalkeeper EJ Proctor, made the team, but they will stay with the organization along with defender Kendall Johnson as practice players, with Harvey saying she’s eager to invest in their development.
As far as expectations are concerned heading into the season, Utah is in an interesting spot as a new team. On one hand, it’s full of talented players who have been part of championship teams in Kansas City, but the group didn’t even have a full training camp together because a bevy of players were on international duty for a good portion of it.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time I think just to get situated and comfortable with each other’s playing styles and how we like to play on the pitch, but it’s starting to become seamless every day,” Scott said this week. “We’re working well together.”
Added O’Hara: “I think that that’s our No. 1 goal, is to win every time we go out there, but with any season, with any team, whether it’s an inaugural season or the team has been together for a while, it takes time to gel. I think we’ll just look to take steps towards coming together as team.”