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Why the marriage between USWNT star Christen Press, Utah Royals FC ultimately failed

Utah Royals FC forward Christen Press (23) turns back after a shot 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 forward Christen Press (23) turns back after a shot 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.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In June of 2018, the new Utah Royals FC franchise made a big splash when it acquired United States Women’s National Team striker Christen Press in a complicated deal that brought Press back to the National Women’s Soccer League after she left to play in Sweden.

URFC gave a big haul to the Chicago Red Stars to acquire one of the world’s best goal scorers, sending Brooke Elby along with a whopping five draft picks. The rationale was that a player of Press’ caliber was worth acquiring, even if it meant leaving the cupboard very bare for adding future developmental pieces to the roster.

On Thursday, after months of indications that Press would not play again for URFC, it was made official when she was selected by Racing Louisville FC in its expansion draft. URFC will receive $75,000 in allocation money as compensation for losing Press.

Press wound up playing in 25 matches for URFC and scored 10 goals to go along with four assists.

What made the marriage between Press and URFC ultimately fail? As with many things of a large magnitude, there were a variety of factors, along with some bad luck.

Things started well enough when she arrived midway through the 2018 season, as she scored her first goal in just her second game. She finished the campaign with just two, however. In 2019, she played two games in April — scoring one goal — before leaving to train for the World Cup.

After the U.S. was victorious, Press returned in July and scored five goals in her first four games back and finished the campaign with eight. In total, she appeared in 14 of 24 games that season. URFC did not make the playoffs, but there was hope that the team could finally break through in 2020.

But then in January, well-respected head coach Laura Harvey left the club for a position with the United States Soccer Federation. Shortly thereafter, Press’ USWNT teammate and URFC captain Becky Sauerbrunn requested a trade to the Portland Thorns so she could finish her career at home.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in full in March, forcing the NWSL like every other league in the United States, and the world, really, to scramble. Thanks to outgoing URFC owner Dell Loy Hansen, the NWSL was able to set up a bubbled tournament in Utah, the Challenge Cup, which was played from June 27-July 26.

All players had the choice whether or not they wanted to play or opt out. Only three from the USWNT — close business associates Press, Tobin Heath (who was also selected Thursday by Louisville) and Megan Rapinoe — opted out.

Before the tournament ended, the NWSL announced that an expansion team in Los Angeles would start playing in 2022. Press, who is from the Los Angeles area, has long been vocal about wanting to play at home, and the announcement fueled speculation that she would force her way there at some point.

At the end of August as Hansen found himself embroiled in controversy after he criticized Real Salt Lake (URFC’s Major League Soccer counterpart) players for following the lead of other athletes by not playing in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Wisconsin, a report from RSL Soapbox outlined a toxic culture within the organization.

Part of that included an allegation that chief business officer Andy Carroll preferred to have Press on promotional materials over other players because he found her to be physically attractive.

The NWSL resumed for an exhibition style Fall Series, with URFC playing its first game Sept. 20. Press had again opted out, and at first kick that afternoon, it was revealed that Harvey’s replacement, Craig Harrington, was placed on leave of absence.

Five days later, rumors were confirmed that Press was signing with Manchester United in England. URFC kept her NWSL rights, but her contract won’t be up until next spring. The Olympics are then expected to be held in the summer, leaving just a small window for the possibility of Press playing for URFC in 2021 before the Los Angeles speculation of 2022 really kicked into high gear.

As such, URFC made the calculated move to not have Press be one of the 11 players it protected in Wednesday’s expansion draft, because the club would get the allocation money if she was selected, and the odds were essentially zero that she would ever play in Utah again.

“We are appreciative of the contributions made by Press and wish her luck in this next chapter,” general manager Stephanie Lee said in a statement Thursday night. “The decision to leave Press unprotected allowed us to focus on players we were certain would and could show up to contribute in the 2021 season, and provides us some flexibility with Allocation Money during our current transition.”

If it wasn’t before Thursday, URFC is now entering a complete rebuild of its roster without much valuable draft capital, along with the needs of new ownership and a new permanent head coach after it was announced earlier this week that Harrington’s contract has officially been terminated.