Saturday not only marks the return of professional women’s soccer to Utah; it also marks Utah Royals defender Imani Dorsey’s return to soccer.

Dorsey took last season off to focus on her mental health, and the prolonged absence makes her even more excited for the Royals’ first game of the season.

“Every time I’m able to play, every time I’m able to lace up my boots, it’s a blessing and an opportunity, and I continue to tell myself that, even when I feel the nerves coming in or like any of the pressure expectations,” she told the Deseret News Friday, noting that her time away gave her “incredible perspective.”

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Why didn’t Imani Dorsey play in 2023?

Prior to the 2022 season, Dorsey would have been unable to take the leave absence she took last year.

Under the National Women’s Soccer League’s latest collective bargaining agreement, players can now take up to a six-month paid mental health leave of absence if recommended by their licensed psychologist or psychiatrist.

Dorsey made the decision to temporarily step away from soccer with the help of her friends, family and fiancé.

“I felt like I’d been burning out like for a while now. But I got to a point where they were like, maybe it’s like time to step back,” she said. “But I think that time off really helped me like rediscover my love for the sport and like, just being a part of a team and competing, being active — like all those things that felt distracted for a little bit, so I was able to get back to that.”

She said the most important thing she learned about herself during her leave of absence was that she’s “not just a soccer player,” which is a revelation she believes improves her performance on the field.

“I mean that in the best way possible,” she said. “Before, I was putting too much of my worth — self worth — in everything that was going on on the field, and there’s only so much I can control. Once I realized that I have a lot more to explore and hobbies and things about myself that I wasn’t giving myself enough mental capacity to look after, I was able to feel like a more well-rounded person, and I think that makes me a better soccer player.”

She thinks that experience will help her be a leader on her current team. She’s one of the members of Utah’s leadership group.

“I definitely think perspective is really important in this league,” she said. “There’s so many ups and downs throughout the season, and it’s all about how well you can stay balanced and stay steady. I really encourage the girls to find their community, find what keeps them centered, finding things outside of the sport that help make them happy. I love being in Utah because the outdoors is really important to me and staying grounded and feeling just connected to where I am, and I didn’t really have that as much in my previous market (in New Jersey). So yeah, continuing to encourage the girls to have balance outside of the sport is really important.”

Before joining the Royals, Dorsey spent her entire career playing for reigning NWSL champions, Gotham FC – originally branded as Sky Blue FC. Not having a chance to play in Gotham’s championship run last season makes Dorsey hungrier to bring a title to Utah.

“I can’t wait to be back there this year with my team and playing in the final,” she said.