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Utah Royals FC enters huge offseason as organization seeks stability

Utah Royals FC players celebrate after forward Amy Rodriguez (8) scores their first goal against Portland Thorns FC during an NWSL soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.
FILE: Utah Royals FC players celebrate after forward Amy Rodriguez (8) scores their first goal against Portland Thorns FC during an NWSL soccer game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Utah Royals FC fell 2-0 Saturday night to Washington-based OL Reign on the road in a very disappointing performance to end the 2020 season, but in large measure, the game was a mere stepping stone to a much more crucial checkpoint.

URFC now faces what surely will be the biggest offseason in club history, at least if it’s even moderately successful. After the incredible tumult players and the organization as a whole faced this season, the ship needs to be righted if URFC wants to have success moving forward.

Most obvious is that new ownership needs to take over, which will go a long way in stabilizing things. There is no indication at this point that whoever buys the team will look to relocate it, and assuming that remains the case, at least players will be able to enter 2021 in a familiar place.

Next up is who those players’ coach will be. Amy LePeilbet took over as interim coach in September when Craig Harrington — who was hired as head coach just in February — was placed on leave of absence. Harrington has not been fired nor has LePeilbet been promoted to permanently take his place, which is perhaps expected given that the ownership change process is ongoing.

LePeilbet, 38, was a longtime member of the United States Women’s National Team and numerous players have pointed to that as one reason she’s earned their respect, but she’s short on head coaching experience.

A URFC assistant coach for two years prior to Harrington’s arrival and then this season before getting the interim tag, will LePeilbet be given a shot on a permanent basis, or will the powers that be look another direction?

“I’ve definitely enjoyed it, so I wouldn’t count it out,” she said after Saturday’s contest in regard to her interest in the job moving forward. “I’m definitely interested just because I’ve enjoyed it and I think the team is still growing and has so much ahead of them and it would be exciting to continue to be a part of that.”

URFC is indeed an unfinished product on the field. Even as Harrington took over last spring, there was some major questions about how good the team could be, and that is now amplified after a year in which the group struggled to a 1-5-3 record.

Outgoing owner Dell Loy Hansen positioned himself as someone who was willing to spend on the club, but will the new owner have the same vision? Will USWNT stalwarts Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara be back after Press opted out of playing this year and is now in England and multiple outlets reported O’Hara wants to play at home in Washington, D.C.?

Depending on those factors, could URFC have to shift toward more of a roster rebuild, even as it has never been among the league’s best teams? It’s got a few young players who showed promise such as rookies Tziarra King and Kate Del Fava, but beyond them, it’s a relatively old roster, meaning there’s a ways to go to start a youth movement if that’s the direction management wants to move in.

Regardless of what happens roster-wise, a rebuild of the organization is something captain Amy Rodriguez said she’s looking forward to over the next few months.

“I think we’re looking forward to a revamp, a redo, refresh,” she said. “I know personally I have a lot things to work on in my offseason, things that I didn’t get to work on this year due to coronavirus, due to a fractured season, broken up season, and I know every single player in our locker room wants to get better for next year, so we’re going to work on improvement and hopefully come back again in a stronger way for 2021.”

Noting the chaos the team has gone through, Rodriguez joined a common refrain from players recently that the group bonded as they went through the challenges together.

“Our team went through a lot in the last month — more than a team should go through — and we had a lot of weight on our shoulders,” she said. “We came together as a unit, I will say that. The team is really passionate and unified together.

“What came of this last month was definitely that, having to lean on each other, and that’s the definition of a team — having players to your left and right who you depend on, you fight for, you fight with out on the field. We hope to build that into our 2021 season and just use this as momentum.”

Utah native Michele Vasconcelos, who was traded to URFC about a week before Harrington went on leave, seconded that thought.

“I think just with all the chaos going on within the organization, I’ve been really impressed with the girls,” she said. “I think the unity that they’ve displayed there, the positivity and how we’ve really been pushing each other, I think that’s the biggest thing. If we can bring this group in next year and have that same energy and then clean up the soccer a little bit, I think we’re going to be really good.”

An attacking player, Rodriguez closed her session with media by using soccer jargon to describe what she hopes the next few months will be like for the organization so that it can ultimately reach a higher level of success in the future.

“With all the changes going on in the field, off the field, around the organization,” she said, “I’m confident that the Royals organization will be on their front foot soon and steamrolling like we should be.”