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Utah Royals FC continuing wild year with fall games

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Utah Royals FC forward Brittany Ratcliffe (25) fires a shot into the leg of Sky Blue FC defender Gina Lewandowski (12) as the Utah Royals and Sky Blue play in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman on Saturday, July 4, 2020. Utah won 1-0.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The latest chapter in what has been a particularly wild 2020 for Utah Royals FC will begin Sunday afternoon when the team kicks off its fall series against Portland Thorns FC on the road.

As URFC still is dealing internally with organizational turmoil, it will play Sunday for the first time since the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup in July, and will be on the road for the first time this year as the Challenge Cup was in Utah.

“We want to create more goal-scoring chances and put the ball in the net more than we definitely did in the Challenge Cup apart from one game and just keep evolving and see glimpses of a foundation in place for us to really kick on toward next season.” Utah Royals FC coach Craig Harrington

While the team certainly didn’t need more twists and turns in an already turbulent year, there was some uncertainty whether or not Sunday’s game would even be played. The fires that have swept through Oregon forced what was supposed to be the Thorns’ fall series opener on Sept. 15 to be moved to Sept. 30, but Sunday’s show will go on.

The URFC side that will take the field at Providence Park on Sunday is primed to be an interesting group, as numerous key players have opted out of playing the fall series or are part of a large contingent from the NWSL who have decided to go abroad until next year because they’ll get to play more games there than here because of the coronavirus pandemic (each NWSL team will play just four games this fall).

United States women’s national team stalwarts Christen Press (England) and Kelley O’Hara (opt out) won’t be there, and the same goes for Rachel Corsie (England) and Gunny Jonsdottir (native Iceland). Canadians Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson have also opted out, the team formally announced on Saturday.

That should open the door for less established players to get plenty of minutes on the field over the course of four games, as well as former Alta High School and BYU Cougar star Michele Vasconcelos, who was traded to URFC by the Chicago Red Stars on Sept. 10 in exchange for $55,000 in allocation money.

“It’s an opportunity for us to get out and play against really high-level competition, test ourselves,” URFC head coach Craig Harrington said. “Players will potentially get to show themselves that didn’t get as many minutes as they would have liked during the Challenge Cup and it’s an opportunity for us to get better and better as we head into the 2021 season.”

Harrington, who has coached just five games since taking the top job in February, is looking forward to the chance he’ll have to continue to implement the things he wants to see the club do moving forward.

“It’s about developing the mentality and the culture that I want within the team, really going heavy-handed on that,” he said. “I think I tip-toed around a few things and went cautiously with individuals and the club going into the Challenge Cup, but I think right now I’m able to be a bit more authentically me and doing that with the team.”

Tactically, Harrington reiterated his long-standing feeling that he wants to be high-octane, even as this group may not have enough quality players who can deliver on that concept.

“We want to create more goal-scoring chances and put the ball in the net more than we definitely did in the Challenge Cup apart from one game and just keep evolving and see glimpses of a foundation in place for us to really kick on toward next season,” he said.

One position where there should be certainty Sunday is at goalkeeper. For the entirety of URFC’s time in the Beehive State, there has been a battle between Nicole Barnhart and Abby Smith, but URFC announced Saturday that Barnhart will be out because of a left Achilles injury, presumably clearing the way for Smith to play.