I’ve never had a group that’s been able to run like that in Orlando ever. —URFC head coach Laura Harvey
SANDY — Before Utah Royals FC faced the Orlando Pride at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 9, a story on the Pride’s team website made special mention of the fact that the game would be played at an altitude of 4,436 feet.
While countless athletes over the years have noted the challenge of competing at a high altitude in the Beehive State, URFC has arguably even more of an advantage over its opposition than teams and players in other leagues that stop here. That’s because Sandy has far and away the highest elevation of any of the nine cities that host National Women’s Soccer League teams.
How big is the disparity? The next closest elevation in the league is Chicago, which is just over 600 feet above sea level. Four of the nine cities in the NWSL have an elevation of less than 100 feet.
For comparison’s sake, while Salt Lake City has the second-highest elevation of any NBA city behind only Denver, about a third of the league has a higher elevation than Chicago, making the adjustment to Utah not quite so drastic.
After that game May 9, URFC captain Becky Sauerbrunn noted that the Pride looked tired down the stretch and that “the altitude might have hit them a little bit in the second half.” Then last Saturday after Sauerbrunn and company beat the Houston Dash 1-0 to finish off a four-game homestand, striker Amy Rodriguez said, “as the game carried on, they got tired and there were a lot more pockets, a lot more holes. You could see it in the last 15 minutes. We really had a lot more chances.”
While Rodriguez acknowledged she hasn’t asked opponents specifically if the altitude is affecting them negatively, she said, “I can only assume that it is definitely a challenge. I know for us who live in this environment it can be a challenge at times, so I think that we use that to our advantage when we can, and hope that we can have a benefit as a home side of living here and experiencing the altitude and whatnot.”
Although URFC won’t play at home again until June 27, head coach Laura Harvey has a theory that her team will be more fit over its next four road games because its home is at a higher altitude.
One big proof the former coach of the Seattle Reign has of the theory comes, perhaps ironically, thanks to Orlando. Going there for the season-opener on March 24, Harvey was a little nervous about her squad’s fitness level given the short preseason it had, but she said last weekend, “I’ve never had a group that’s been able to run like that in Orlando ever.
"Being from the West Coast and going there is always really hard, so I think training at altitude and going east or west I think is going to give us a little bit of a physical advantage. Doesn’t matter if we don’t pass and keep the ball, but I think we can go and put a lot of teams under pressure and really defensively work really hard because we’ve had a long stretch here now where we’ve worked really hard in our training.”
Said Rodriguez: “I think when we play out of here, we’ll really get the feeling of whether or not the altitude does affect us, and hopefully we’ll be in better shape now when we go to another home field.”