SALT LAKE CITY — If even just a little compared to normal, things started to settle down for Utah Royals FC this week.
After the chaos of last week, which saw head coach Craig Harrington placed on leave of absence as the team prepared for its fall series opener against Portland Thorns FC, URFC was able to get into a bit of a groove this week as it prepared for Saturday’s home contest against Washington-based OL Reign.
“I’d definitely say that it’s been a little calmer and people are a little bit more grounded,” defender Elizabeth Ball said on Friday during a Zoom meeting with media. “I think every single one of us has just been leaning on each other and just trying to make it through that day and then go on to the next one, but definitely everybody’s feeling a little bit more grounded, and we’re extremely excited to go out and play on Rio Tinto (Stadium) tomorrow.”
Ball gave particular credit to interim head coach Amy LePeilbet for bringing a sense of calm and direction to the club in the midst of the extremely heavy turmoil the organization has experienced over the past few months and especially the past few weeks.
“It’s been great,” Ball said. “Amy has just stepped in and has been amazing, has been such a positive light in our lives this past week.”
Midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta echoed that sentiment about LePeilbet, a former United States Women’s National Team defender, saying, “Amy is definitely not a yeller. She doesn’t just talk the talk, so when she does bring up something, I think the girls immediately latch on and buy into it.”
LePeilbet, who has been an assistant coach with URFC since its beginning in 2018, said herself Friday that “I’m definitely not on the sideline yelling at them. I think they’re all very intelligent, talented players, and they can solve while they’re out there, and then anything we do see from the sideline, we definitely try to share that with them to help them solve things quicker, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be a yeller. It’s just not my style, but when I have to let them know things, I do my best to get my point across.”
This week, URFC will be aiming to rebound from its 3-0 loss to the Thorns under incredibly difficult circumstances, as Harrington had taken leave just days before. LePeilbet said training this week was productive, and she said she’s less concerned with trying to overhaul things to fit her liking than she is with just trying to help the group improve each day.
“We hit two to three major things we thought would help us perform better tomorrow, and I think that was our main focus as opposed to me putting my stamp on this team,” she said. “I don’t think it was about that at all. It was more about, ‘How do we help this group perform better tomorrow?’”
For the first time since Oct. 12 of last year, URFC will play Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (the team trained there Friday for the first time), and they’ll do so in front of what could be up to 5,000 fans as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“A lot of girls had the biggest smiles,” LaBonta said of the training session. “They were so stoked to finally be out there. ... We love playing for the fans. We love having people out there supporting us. I think it’s going to be a great game. I think girls are so stoked, and it’s going to be fun being in front of fans.”