SANDY — At the outset of the Utah Royals FC’s inaugural campaign, it was thought that head coach Laura Harvey’s side would struggle offensively. After all, United States Women’s National Team veteran Amy Rodriguez was really the only proven goal-scorer on the roster, and she was returning after essentially two seasons away from competitive soccer because of pregnancy and injury.
URFC has in fact had problems generating offense on its road to trying to qualify for the playoffs, as it's just seventh among nine teams in the National Women's Soccer League in goals scored heading into Wednesday night's road game against the Washington Spirit. Rodriguez has only scored three goals, and midseason acquisition Christen Press, along with Diana Matheson and Brittany Ratcliffe, have scored just twice apiece.
Ratcliffe hasn’t scored since June 16 and Matheson hasn’t since June 2.
While the offense has been poor overall, it’s gotten a big boost from a somewhat unexpected source in Katie Stengel. URFC’s second pick in the January dispersal draft after the Boston Breakers folded, Stengel leads the squad with five goals on the season, even though she’s just an occasional starter, and is tied for 13th overall in the NWSL.
Despite the inconsistent role, Stengel feels she’s found some solid footing after stopping at multiple places around the world following graduation from Wake Forest in 2013, where she left as the Demon Deacons' all-time leader in goals scored.
“Having to go all over and try to figure out what to do, I’ve gotten really lucky to be here now,” she said.
After her collegiate career, Stengel didn’t enter her name in the National Women’s Soccer League draft, but instead joined the Los Angeles Blues of the now-defunct United Soccer League’s W-League. Following a short time there, Stengel went to Germany, where she played for Bayern Munich and led the team in goals as it won the 2014-2015 Frauen Bundesliga title.
Stengel then came back to the United States, signing with the Spirit prior to the 2016 season. After a “good” first year, things started to fall apart in 2017. Stengel said last week that Washington coach Jim Gabarra, who was fired on Tuesday, “doesn’t believe in his players.”
The forward was ultimately waived by the Spirit on June 28 of last year, but was picked up just a few days later by the Breakers and finished the season there. She was re-signed for the 2018 campaign, but then Boston folded in January, leaving her in the lurch while she played in Australia during the NWSL’s offseason before she was selected by URFC.
“I’ve gotten really good at packing my life in my Jeep,” she joked.
More seriously, Stengel said the last year was “a big growth period for me,” and is particularly grateful for the chance to be coached by Harvey and have the teammates she does, who she credits for diverting opposing defenses’ attention, thereby opening up chances for her to score.
Harvey is certainly happy to have Stengel on her side. While not the most athletic player on the field, Stengel provides a physical presence that is otherwise absent on URFC’s roster.
“I think the thing with Steng is she is a true goal scorer,” Harvey said. “She’s a target 9, and there’s not many of them in the league. … I think the reason she has success is that she just keeps believing she’s going to score, honestly.”
On Wednesday, URFC will face a Washington side that will be led by assistant coach Tom Torres after Gabarra’s dismissal. The Spirit is eighth in the NWSL table, and the team hasn’t won since May 23. It has lost eight straight contests, including to URFC on Aug. 8.
URFC is sixth in the table, but a win would vault the club into the fourth and final playoff spot with one more game to go in the regular season.
First kick is set for 5:30 p.m. MDT.