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‘We want to cause teams problems’: Utah Royals FC opens 2020 prep with improving goal-scoring at the forefront

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Utah Royals FC forward Amy Rodriguez (8) celebrates after scoring, tying the match at 1-1 against the Chicago Red Stars, at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

HERRIMAN — The last time Utah Royals FC took the field five months ago, Laura Harvey was the head coach, Becky Sauerbrunn was team captain and players such as 2018 scoring leader Katie Stengel and occasional starters Erika Tymrak, Becca Moros, Mandy Laddish and Sydney Miramontez were on the roster.

Sure, every team goes through change on some level each offseason, but it’s happened at a high degree for URFC this time around, as Harvey left to become head coach of the United States U-20 team, Sauerbrunn requested a trade to Portland where she lives and the others were either traded or retired.

As such, a new era for the third-year National Women’s Soccer League franchise is on its way, and preparations began in earnest on Monday at Zions Bank Real Academy for the 2020 season opener April 18 on the road against Portland, with new head coach Craig Harrington leading the charge.

So where to even begin in essentially starting over?

“It’s one of those things brick-by-brick, isn’t it?” Harrington said. “For us, it’s trying to set the mindset right now and mentality of what we’re looking for. It’s just kind of setting that vibe in what we want to go forward and kick off the season in the right manner.”

Harrington will be inheriting a URFC group that narrowly missed the playoffs in its first two seasons, with goal-scoring being the primary culprit. URFC was one of the best defensive teams in the NWSL, with some of Harvey’s catchphrases being “prevention is better than cure” and “we want to be hard to beat,” but too often struggled to put the ball in the back of the net.

“It’s one of those things brick-by-brick, isn’t it? For us, it’s trying to set the mindset right now and mentality of what we’re looking for. It’s just kind of setting that vibe in what we want to go forward and kick off the season in the right manner.” — Royals coach Craig Harrington

In that vein, Harrington promised when he was introduced as coach and reiterated Monday that he wants his team to be more dangerous offensively, and he certainly has the personnel to do it with United States Women’s National Team star Christen Press and returning leading scorer (and new team captain) Amy Rodriguez, among others.

“It’s been about us being high-octane,” he said of the first conversations he’s had with his squad, which entered Monday shorthanded because a bevy of players are out on international duty. “We want to cause teams problems, and that involves us with the ball. If you have the ball, then it’s kind of like chess, isn’t it? Attack is the best type of defense.”

Rodriguez understands more scoring to be Harrington’s objective as well.

“He wants change, and he wants excitement and he wants attack, and those are all things that I love, so it’s a win-win,” she said.

While defense was the focus the last two seasons under Harvey and there were struggles offensively, the biggest question marks heading into the 2020 campaign are around the defense, especially at center back with Sauerbrunn gone. 

URFC got Elizabeth Ball from Portland in exchange for Sauerbrunn, but will she immediately start, or will someone like second-year player Gaby Vincent? At the other center back spot, can Rachel Corsie return to top form after struggling some in 2019? Can United States Women’s National Team stalwart Kelley O’Hara be effective at outside back after two injury-plagued seasons? Will Nicole Barnhart remain the starting goalkeeper or can Abby Smith supplant her?

All of those questions will be answered as time unfolds, of course, but for now, players are optimistic things can be better than they have been the first two seasons in Utah.

“This didn’t happen to us middle of the season,” midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta said of the many changes. “It all happened in the offseason, so we are able to come in with a fresh new start. ... I think it’s good because we’re not going to fall back on any plans. We’re going to create our own new plan for this upcoming season.”

Added Rodriguez: “We had an identity these last two years and it didn’t work for us. Obviously we didn’t win. We didn’t even make playoffs, and so with a bunch of new faces and a new identity hopefully comes playoff berths and comes championships. That’s what we want to be known as, and we’re going to set out to do that this year.”