One position group that is certainly primed to be a strength for the Utah Royals as they begin their first season is goalkeeper.
Having obtained the rights to Nicole Barnhart when the franchise made the move to the Beehive State from Kansas City, the Royals have a player with a wealth of experience and success at all levels of soccer, including having led the NWSL in saves in 2017.
Utah added depth when it drafted EJ Proctor in mid-January, and then at the end of that month, selected Abby Smith in a dispersal draft after the Boston Breakers folded.
How good is Smith? She finished second in the league in saves in 2017, giving the Royals a wealth of options to turn to in goal.
“I think it’s a good group,” Barnhart said. “You have some experience, some younger goalkeepers in there, so it’s a good group to work with and build upon throughout the season as we get going.”
Utah head coach Laura Harvey noted that the three are all in different stages of their respective careers, with Barnhart perhaps toward the twilight, Smith out to build upon the success she’s had in two seasons in the league, and Proctor just out of college.
Barnhart is still working to get back into top shape after offseason surgery and Harvey doesn’t see a need to push her too hard, causing the coach to say earlier in the preseason that the starting job is “Abby’s to lose.” Barnhart didn’t play in a March 3 scrimmage against BYU, but did enter in the 72nd minute Friday in a scrimmage against UCLA in Los Angeles that the Royals won 4-1.
“I think Nicole is obviously a fantastic goalkeeper, and when fit and healthy, it’s going to be a huge fight,” Harvey said of the competition for the starting spot. “I think they’re both really up for that.”
Barnhart at the very least is looking forward to a dynamic she hasn’t had on her team in some time at the NWSL level.
“You always want someone there pushing you regardless. I think it’s good to have that. It’s maybe something I haven’t necessarily had the past couple years in Kansas City, so I’m looking forward to just helping each other get better along the way.”
Smith echoed those sentiments.
“There’s always a competition, but Nicole’s a great goalkeeper and she’s a great person, so I’m excited to learn from her and grow with her,” she said. “I think it’s going to be awesome just because everybody has strengths and weaknesses, but also she has been with this group for a long time, so learning from her is going to be such a big bonus on my side of growing as a player but also trying to push her, too. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun and I’m excited to see how things turn out.”