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With soccer life on hold because of pandemic, Utah Royals FC working to stay ready for when normalcy resumes

Utah Royals FC midfielder Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir (66) high-fives Utah Royals FC midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta (9) during their match against the Seattle Reign FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Utah Royals FC midfielder Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir (66) high-fives Utah Royals FC midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta (9) during their match against Seattle Reign FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Friday, June 28, 2019.
Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After a monthlong buildup of excitement from the time Utah Royals FC hired new head coach Craig Harrington on Feb. 7 to when the team opened preseason training for the 2020 campaign on March 9, the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a halt after just two days.

A little more than two weeks later, URFC finds itself in a position of uncertainty, much like the rest of the world. The National Women’s Soccer League on March 12 canceled the preseason but kept open the idea that the season could start as scheduled on April 18. Now, however, teams are not allowed to even train until April 6, and it stands to reason that could get pushed back in the coming days.

On Thursday, Harrington spoke to reporters for about 30 minutes via conference call and said the goal right now is to keep players as mentally and physically fit as possible — even as they practice social distancing measures — so they can be as prepared as possible when they’re allowed to hit the field again.

“I think the hardest thing for a lot of them was all the hard work that they put in behind the scenes to come into the preseason to get themselves firing and going, obviously with a new coach to try and impress,” he said of the forced stoppage. “They’re all extremely mentally tough. They’re resilient, robust people.”

Harrington said players have access to some workout equipment at home (they all live in at least pairs here), and everyone is in regular contact with each other, whether it be through phone calls, texting, WhatsApp or other methods. All are in Utah except for United States Women’s National Team players Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara, Canadians Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson, new French signee Aminata Diallo and captain Amy Rodriguez.

“Ultimately, everyone wants to be here and spend time together,” he said. “It’s a good chance to connect with people and understand each other.”

Meanwhile, Harrington is using this time to more fully wrap his arms around his new job. When he was hired, he and his wife, Allison, decided she would stay in Illinois (he was previously an assistant coach for the Chicago Red Stars) while their oldest daughter finished this school year.

Instead of training with players now, though, he and his staff have put together detailed videos for players to study, and they are working on things such as how they’ll communicate during games.

At this point, the topic of whether or not players might leave Utah if the pandemic lasts an extended period of time hasn’t come up, but he imagines it will be discussed on a player-by-player basis if it gets to that point.

“Hopefully that doesn’t have to happen,” he said. “If we’re getting to that stage, then the league is in a lockdown and the world situation has gotten a lot, lot worse, so hopefully those days are not in our future.”

On numerous occasions Thursday, Harrington emphasized that indeed the pandemic is a global challenge, and not something just his group is dealing with. In that vein, though, he recognized the role his team can have in the community once things get back to normal.

“This isn’t just us as a soccer (team), but we all know that responsibility, that when we get through this, the world is going to need sports,” he said. “We’re going to need to come together. We’re going to provide an outlet for groups to get together and to give people that connection again. That ultimately allows us to keep ourselves going. Hopefully at the end of this we will also bring some joy to people’s lives.”