SANDY — Anyone who followed Utah Royals FC’s first campaign in 2018 will long remember the hoopla.
As owner Dell Loy Hansen brought the club to Utah, he made sure everything was done big, especially in comparison with most of the teams in the National Women’s Soccer League. Among the bigger items in a long list of big things: players were given quality living arrangements and brand new cars, a locker room was built inside Rio Tinto Stadium and the home opener was a sellout.
With that standard set, as the team moves into its second season of existence, which begins on Saturday night at home against the Washington Spirit, there’s a feeling that 2019 can be more about just playing soccer.
“In our inaugural season, I think the journey that we went on was something that, when we reflected on it, we got through so much stuff and got exposed to so many things that we’ve learned from,” head coach Laura Harvey said earlier this week. “A big thing for us in preseason is to try and move on and progress very quickly so we can hit the ground running this year.”
While players were incredibly grateful last season for the welcome they received, there’s a certain sense of relief that the 2018 chapter on the club’s book has been closed.
“Last year was kind of a whirlwind,” defender Becca Moros said when training camp began in March. “There was a lot of excitement and energy, but it was actually a little bit of an additional stressor. Now it feels like coming home.”
While things off the field were world-class, URFC went through its share of both highs and lows on it, which resulted in a record of 9-7-8 and missing the playoffs by just 2 points. Harvey’s squad was very good defensively but often struggled to score.
So what to expect in 2019? Here are four things to watch as the season unfolds:
1. World Cup
Unfortunately for URFC, the biggest storyline to monitor as the campaign progresses has more to do with who won’t be present than who will be, as up to seven key players could miss a huge chunk of the season when they represent their countries in the World Cup in France.
URFC will only play three games while the actual event is taking place from June 7-July 7, but there will be camps and other obligations players will be gone for before and after it. While every club in the NWSL is expected to miss players for a time, URFC will be hit especially hard with the overall number of players who will be absent.
Furthermore, Americans Becky Sauerbrunn, Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara will be leaving for camp after the second game of the season and then will likely be playing in a post-Cup tour around the country. All told, that trio could miss roughly half of the season.
On the plus side, other players on all three lines will have a chance to show more of what they can do.
“I think it gives a good opportunity to step up and not only get more playing time, but to take on more of a leadership role and lead the team,” forward Erika Tymrak said at the start of camp.
2. Vero Boquete
As 2018 progressed, it became clear that URFC’s most glaring weakness was not having someone who could help create scoring chances in the midfield. To remedy that, Harvey signed one of the world’s best players in that role, Spanish star Vero Boquete.
“I think she’ll be a good connection between the midfield and the offense, which is pretty much the role she’s been brought in to play,” said Moros, one of the numerous players on the URFC roster Boquete has been teammates with in the past. “That was a little bit disjointed last year. … I think that connection between our midfield and our front line can be really fortified by Vero’s presence.”
It’s also abundantly clear to Boquete that’s what she’s been brought here to do.
“That is normally my capacity, so I hope to be ready and to be able to do it,” she said.
A number of players are either dealing with injuries or coming off serious injuries. On the negative side, Brittany Ratcliffe tore her ACL during training and is out for the season, while Diana Matheson and Katie Stengel sustained foot injuries in the offseason and O’Hara has dealt with a number of injuries over the last year (Stengel and O’Hara are on the upswing).
More positively, Mandy Laddish is healthy after missing all of the last two seasons. Makenzy Doniak, whom the team traded for last June, should also contribute after missing 2018.
Including the 19,203 people who came to the home opener in 2018, the average attendance for the campaign was 9,466, second in the NWSL.
Will that continue? Will the World Cup impact attendance, either positively or negatively?
To start, the club is expecting a big crowd for Saturday’s opener.
“We’re just really excited to get it going,” Harvey said. “We’re ready to go for the home opener and can’t wait for it.”