SALT LAKE CITY — The more things change, the more they stay the same for Utah Royals FC?
When Craig Harrington took over as the team’s new head coach in February, he said he wanted to be much more dangerous offensively after the first two years of the team’s existence saw it be excellent defensively but often struggle to score en route to just missing out on the playoffs both seasons.
There was reason to think things could be different in 2020. United States Women’s National Team forward Christen Press had been playing tremendously heading into the National Women’s Soccer League season, Brittany Ratcliffe and Taylor Lytle were coming back after missing all of 2019 because of injury, more depth had been added in Tziarra King, and Arielle Ship and French signee Aminata Diallo — and even outside back Kelley O’Hara — appeared to finally be healthy and ready to help veteran Amy Rodriguez the attack.
“We’ve got players across the board that are very good, attacking-minded players. Hopefully players will step up and take the opportunity given to them and score and create goals for us.” — Utah Royals FC coach Craig Harrington
Secondarily, reports swirled that German star Dzenifer Marozsan was going to join the team this summer.
Combine all of that with Harrington’s emphasis on goal-scoring, and maybe, just maybe, there would have been improvement.
But then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic came to the forefront the first week of preseason in March, halting preparation and ultimately gameplay.
Finally, this week, URFC will get its chance to compete when it opens play Tuesday morning in the NWSL Challenge Cup against the Houston Dash at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, but even as a third of the roster is different from 2019, present circumstances indicate that the style of play could be more similar to the last two seasons than anything new.
Most notably, Press opted to not play in the tournament, leaving a huge hole in the lineup. Additionally, Marozsan resigned with her club team in France. Thirdly, O’Hara and Mallory Weber will miss at least Tuesday’s game because of injury. Lastly, Diallo just arrived in Utah over the weekend and is in mandatory quarantine for a few more days.
In other words, there’s uncertainty where goals are going to come from.
Rodriguez should still be in good form, but after her there are plenty of question marks. How much can Ratcliffe and Lytle help? How quickly can King acclimate to the professional game? Who else can step up?
“We’ve got players across the board that are very good, attacking-minded players,” Harrington said during a Zoom meeting with reporters Monday. “Hopefully players will step up and take the opportunity given to them and score and create goals for us.”
Added Ratcliffe: “I think as a whole, the forwards, we get along great. Obviously we want to score goals, but we need to work together as a team and build chemistry, and that’s going to take time. I hope in the first game we score 10 goals and then call it a day, but I think working together and building team chemistry, the goals will come.”
While there are a bevy of questions, one player to potentially get excited about is King, the eighth overall pick in the 2020 draft.
“She’s done an amazing job,” Harrington said Monday of his rookie. “Obviously was drafted high, thought highly of across the country, had an amazing college career and I think she’s settled in really well. I think she’s had an incredible last two weeks finding her feet as a professional soccer player and getting a daily routine of what it takes.”
Moving back on the pitch, the midfield has never been very dynamic offensively, but it will also be without its defensive anchor in Desiree Scott, as she’ll be out Tuesday because of what the team listed as “personal reasons.”
As far as the back line that has been stout the last two seasons is concerned, it has to learn how to work without one of the best center backs in the world, USWNT veteran Becky Sauerbrunn, who requested a trade to the Portland Thorns in the offseason to be close to home.
“I think our team is full of players who are extremely competitive, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes and put our bodies on the line for whatever it may be, and I think that our fitness and just our physicality will really shine through as well as obviously our soccer abilities, but I think (physicality) is going to give us the edge when we’re playing against these other teams.” — Royals center back Elizabeth Ball
On the plus side, URFC is pretty deep defensively, and the player URFC got in return for Sauerbrunn, center back Elizabeth Ball, said the group has been working well together.
Asked independent of each other to describe how the team as a whole is shaping up so far, both Ratcliffe and Ball pointed to the gritty mentality the team has taken on, which was a hallmark of the teams from the last two seasons, and how the 2020 group will likely have to continue to be during the Challenge Cup if it wants success.
“I think our team is full of players who are extremely competitive, and we’re willing to do whatever it takes and put our bodies on the line for whatever it may be,” Ball said, “and I think that our fitness and just our physicality will really shine through as well as obviously our soccer abilities, but I think (physicality) is going to give us the edge when we’re playing against these other teams.”