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First-year Utah Royals FC head coach Craig Harrington will face former team in NWSL Challenge Cup

SHARE First-year Utah Royals FC head coach Craig Harrington will face former team in NWSL Challenge Cup

New Utah Royals FC head coach Craig Harrington laughs as he answers questions from the media at a press conference at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Craig Harrington smiled as the question was being asked. 

Rory Dames addressed the topic before being queried on it.

Coaches always readily say that games are about the players, but it’s impossible to ignore that Sunday night’s contest between Utah Royals FC and the Chicago Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman will pit two team leaders who have a history with each other against one another.

Ahead of the 2018 NWSL season, Harrington was hired to be an assistant coach under Dames in Chicago, his first job in the league. He spent two seasons in the Windy City before being hired in February for URFC’s top spot.

While both made it clear Saturday during prematch press conferences that they’ll be enemies for 90 minutes on Sunday when their teams take the pitch, it’s obvious they have a high level of mutual respect.

Harrington called his stint with the Red Stars “two of the best years of my life,” and Dames said in his introductory comments that, “a good friend of ours will be on the other side, so we’re looking forward to playing against him, but also very proud and excited to see him over there and how much he’s grown and how well he’s done.”

To be sure, Harrington has a ways to go before he reaches the level of prosperity Dames has had in the league. Chicago made the league semifinals four straight years from 2015-2018 and then finally broke through and made the championship game last year, where it fell to the mighty North Carolina Courage.

That said, Dames feels Harrington has what it takes to be successful.

“I think the first thing Craig has is passion,” Dames said. “It’s always important to be passionate about what you’re doing, but he also is a sponge for information. He works from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to sleep. He’s very committed to what he’s doing. He believes in how he wants to play and what he thinks it should look like, and I think with some time here, he’ll be able to translate that on to the field and have success on the field.”

In a larger sense, the 37-year-old Harrington, who is the father of two daughters, said his time in Chicago helped solidify in his mind that if he has it his way, he’ll spend the rest of his career in the women’s game.

“Absolutely loved my time there. Loved the people that are involved in that city. Love the people involved in that club,” Harrington said, pointing specifically to Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden and her work during the Challenge Cup in being a strong voice for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. “Obviously I’ve been given the opportunity a couple of times now within this league to work at different clubs, and I’m so grateful for that. ... I never take it for granted. It’s so special.”

For as much as the bond between the two coaches is a storyline for Sunday, there will be plenty at stake on the field in what will be the final preliminary game for both sides in the Challenge Cup. URFC will be trying to separate itself from a big pack in the middle of the table, while the Red Stars, for all their past success, have struggled with the departure of Sam Kerr to Europe and will be aiming to avoid last place and a subsequent quarterfinal date against the Courage.

On Chicago’s roster are two former Alta High School stars, Kealia Watt and Michele Vasconcelos, the latter of whom later was a standout at BYU.

Chicago will have one distinct advantage as it hasn’t played in a week, while URFC last played on Wednesday.