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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah Royals FC players celebrate after forward Katie Stengel (24) scored on the Chicago Red Stars, putting the Royals up 2-1, in a match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

SANDY — Throughout Utah Royals FC’s first season in existence, head coach Laura Harvey repeatedly said her team was undergoing an evolution.

The club reached a major milestone in that evolutionary process last Saturday as it completed its inaugural campaign with a 2-1 home victory over the Chicago Red Stars. Despite the finality of a season that saw URFC finish 9-7-8 and two points out of the playoffs, there’s a sense around the team that 2018 was merely an opening act for bigger and better things to come in the future.

“I’m really happy with the fact that we’ve been able to be competitive,” Harvey said. “We know now who we are, the players know who I am and what I expect, I now know them as people and who they are and what we can get out of them, so I’m excited for what this franchise and what this club can do in the future for sure.”

Midfielder Desiree Scott, who like many URFC players came from the FC Kansas City franchise that owner Dell Loy Hansen relocated last November, echoed the sentiment that now is as much a time to look forward as it is to reflect on what has been.

“I think we’ve taken a lot of steps as a team,” she said. “We didn’t reach our goals, but I think we see a lot of potential and what the club wants to do and what the players want to accomplish. I think that’s motivation just for next season, for us to work hard in our offseasons wherever we may be and come back ready to go and make sure we make playoffs next year.”

In URFC’s bid next year to make the postseason, it will need to maintain strength defensively and find a way to get better offensively, as it finished third in the nine-team National Women’s Soccer League in goals allowed but just seventh in goals scored.

This team has stuck together despite underperforming at times, which can really tear people up and tear up a locker room, and that’s not the case. This team is as tight as when we got here, and that will be huge for us coming in next year as well.
Utah Royals FC's Becca Moros

On a high note, the back line was excellent, led by center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Rachel Corsie, with Becca Moros and Katie Bowen establishing a consistent presence outside. The goalkeeper position became one of intrigue, as Abby Smith began the year as the starter before Nicole Barnhart replaced her down the stretch.

The midfield added to the defensive strength, thanks to Scott, and Gunny Jonsdottir brought a special toughness to the lineup, although that group as a whole wasn’t very dynamic offensively, even when Katrina Gorry arrived from Australia after the season began.

Up front, usual substitute Katie Stengel wound up leading the team in goals with six as Amy Rodriguez struggled to find form until late in the season after essentially two years away from the game. URFC made a huge splash by acquiring star goal scorer Christen Press in late June, and she found the back of the net three times, but her partnership with Rodriguez will need to continue to develop if URFC wants to improve in 2019.

“I think defensively as a team we did pretty well this season,” Sauerbrunn said. “I think everyone put in really good shifts all over the field. I think on the attack, all of us need to take more responsibility in finishing goals. I think if we add that component to our game, we’ll be a very good team.”

The X-factor moving forward is surely star Kelley O’Hara, who missed most of the season with a hamstring issue. Even in limited action, Harvey utilized O’Hara’s versatility, playing her on the back line, in the midfield and up front.

“Unfortunately we didn’t do what we needed to do to have (playoffs) in our hands, and I think that will be a big learning curve for us going forward,” O’Hara said. “I think it’s something that we needed to maybe have to go through as a team to make us make sure we make every game count next year and for the seasons moving forward.”

Even during the rough patches, Moros called the personality of the team “special,” something she hasn’t always seen in her 10 years as a professional, and said that will help the group grow moving forward.

“This team has stuck together despite underperforming at times, which can really tear people up and tear up a locker room, and that’s not the case,” she said. “This team is as tight as when we got here, and that will be huge for us coming in next year as well.”

From a business perspective, soccer observers’ eyes have been on the club since the ever-bold Hansen declared in the announcement of the franchise’s arrival that he wanted to make it "the very best women's sports organization in America."

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Utah Royals FC forward Katie Stengel (24) takes a shot on goal during the match against the Chicago Red Stars at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

To that end, Hansen has put his money where his mouth is, providing players with housing, cars, top-notch training facilities and Rio Tinto Stadium as the club’s home ground, a contrast to the way some of the teams in the NWSL are run. His vision has certainly been appreciated by players, and Harvey said that at a lunch meeting last week, the owner maintained his commitment moving forward.

“It just has given me a lot of hope about the future for women’s soccer here,” Sauerbrunn said. “Especially in the NWSL, you want owners to join that are like Dell Loy Hansen that are willing to put in the money and the investment and to care and to be passionate about this team and about the community, and so for me, it just gives me a really great, bright future, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

As far as ticket sales are concerned, URFC finished second in attendance in the NWSL behind only Portland Thorns FC with an average of 9,466 fans per game. If URFC’s home opener sellout of 19,203 is removed, the number drops to 8,581, but that’s still well above the 5,129 the third-place team, title favorite NC Courage, averaged.

Game broadcasting became a mixed bag, as contests could be seen on the KSL app throughout the season, but television broadcasts on KMYU were scrapped with three games to go (Hansen was not made available for comment).

Harvey said after the season finale that it struck her more than it ever had before while she was at a season ticket holder event two nights previous just how impactful her team is and could be on the community.

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“Bringing women’s soccer to this state and this city is such a huge thing that I don’t really think even us inside of the locker room really understand yet,” she said. “We’ve been on a memorable journey. Not necessarily a fully positive one, but it’s something we can always look back on and build on for the future.”

While the NWSL doesn’t have free agency, Harvey left a charge after the finale for players and fans alike as URFC continues its evolution.

“I truly believe that this club is going to be going places, and all I say to anybody is, ‘be part of it,’” she said. “Jump on this train, because it’s going somewhere.’”