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'Gunny was great': Utah Royals FC midfielder plays different role in much-needed win over Sky Blue FC

Utah Royals FC midfielder Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir (66) gets away from Sky Blue FC midfielder Julie James (5) as the Salt Lake Royals and Sky Blue FC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The Royals won 3-0.
Utah Royals FC midfielder Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir (66) gets away from Sky Blue FC midfielder Julie James (5) as the Salt Lake Royals and Sky Blue FC play at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The Royals won 3-0.

SANDY — In the Jan. 3, 2018, press release announcing the signing of Icelandic international Gunnhildur “Gunny” Jonsdottir, then-new Utah Royals FC head coach Laura Harvey noted, “Her enthusiasm on the field is infectious.”

That comment portended the fact that Jonsdottir would soon become the embodiment of the identity URFC would start to create for itself. Yes, Jonsdottir was quickly a name to know when she scored the franchise’s first goal less than three minutes into its first game, but far more than that, her gritty, hard-to-beat style in the midfield is how Harvey wanted all of her players to play.

Too many times to count in that first season, Jonsdottir would end up on the ground, and it would appear she’d be unable to get back up and stay in the game. Each time, however, she kept going, and wound up being the only URFC player to play every minute of the campaign.

"I would play on one foot if that’s what Laura wants," she said after last season's opener.

Outside the lines, a different side of Jonsdottir’s infectious personality started to come out when, after every URFC home win, she would lead her teammates and the crowd in the “Viking clap,” a celebration made famous by Icelandic soccer fans. Instead of the “Huh!” chant, however, Jonsdottir changed it to “Utah! Royals! FC!”

As the 2019 season has progressed, Jonsdottir’s play hasn’t become less impactful, per se, but as URFC has tumbled in the NWSL table, Harvey has been searching for solutions to her team’s goal-scoring struggles, something Jonsdottir and midfield mate Desiree Scott aren’t answers to, as good as they are in helping URFC be hard to beat.

The 30-year-old Jonsdottir’s streak of playing every minute finally ended on July 12 when she was subbed off for Makenzy Doniak in the 82nd minute against Sky Blue FC as URFC was looking for the win in a 0-0 game (URFC wound up losing 1-0 on a SBFC stoppage time goal).

Two weeks later on July 27, Jonsdottir came off in the 72nd minute and Katie Stengel subbed on as URFC was aiming for a draw against the North Carolina Courage in a contest it ultimately lost 2-1.

Then on Wednesday night against SBFC at Rio Tinto Stadium, with URFC desperate to score and win, Jonsdottir wasn’t in the starting lineup at all, as Harvey started Stengel instead, putting a much more offensive presence in the midfield.

“We know the way Sky Blue play, and we knew that we were going to have a lot of the ball, and when we have a lot of the ball, we want to be able to get our more attacking players on the ball,” Harvey said after URFC won 3-0. “A lot of games — Portland, North Carolina — I think that you know that you’re going to be under pressure a little bit, so maybe it’s not a game to be able to do that, but I felt this was one that we could have really attack-minded players all over the place. Gunny and Desi are that solid rock for us all the time, but I didn’t think we needed both of them the whole game.”

With the contest all but over, Jonsdottir subbed on for Stengel in the 64th minute, marking the first time in her URFC tenure that she’s been used as a sub.

“A lot of people, when they start and then all the sudden don’t start a game, they’re down, they’re on the bench, they’re sulking, but Gunny was great,” said fellow midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta, whose play led to two of Wednesday’s goals. “In warmups she was seeing whatever she could do for anybody else, halftime she was cheering everybody, telling them what they could do better and then she came in and defended like the warrior she is.

"I think that was huge. That’s what we need, especially if we do go up in goals, and even if we go down, she would come on and do the same thing.”

Just like Harvey indicated, LaBonta pointed to the fact that Wednesday’s change could have been merely situational against SBFC, particularly given that URFC will play again on Sunday.

Nevertheless, there was one thing surrounding Jonsdottir’s night Wednesday that remained the same as it has long been: Soon after the final whistle blew, she led the crowd in the Viking clap as URFC picked up its first win in seven games, one it so sorely needed.