Head Coach: Craig Harrington was named the new head coach of Utah Royals FC back in February. This tournament will be his debut as a head coach in the NWSL although he has experience within the league having been an assistant coach with the Chicago Red Stars for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
What did the Royals’ 2019 look like? The club’s second season had its highs and lows, but in the end the Royals fell short for the second year in a row.They finished the season in 6th place with a record of 10-4-10 (W-D-L) missing the playoffs by only 4 points.
National Team Players: Defender Kelley O’Hara will be the only current USWNT member to play in the 2020 Challenge Cup although the club is also home to Christen Press who has opted not to play in the tournament. The Royals roster is full of talent from all over the world. Canadian National Team members Desiree Scott and Diana Mathesson help round out the midfield for the Royals alongside former Spanish National Team member Vero Boquette and new arrival Aminata Diallo who plays for the French National Team. Scottish National Team captain Rachel Corsie plays center back and anchors the back line which also features New Zealand National Team member Katie Bowen and Icelandic International Gunny Jónsdóttir.
Players You Should Know: Outside of the extensive list of Internationals listed above, one player to keep an eye out for this season will be Mallory Weber who is coming off of a solid season in the W league where she showed that she can also play further up the pitch. In 2019 we saw her fill in for an injured Kelley O’Hara at rightback but she played as a midfielder for Adelaide United this winter in Australia, leading the team in scoring and finishing her season with 4 goals and 1 assist in 11 matches played. Another player to keep an eye out for is former USWNT goalkeeper Nicole Barnhardt who, at 38 years old, was one of the best keepers in the league last year having put on quite a few impressive performances to earn 10 clean sheets in 2019.
Changes in the Off-Season:
Katie Stengel traded to Houston Dash, Makenzy Doniak traded to Chicago Red Stars, Becky Sauerbrunn traded to Portland Thorns, Elizabeth Ball acquired from Portland Thorns via trade
Tziarra King: Forward from NC State selected 8th overall
Katie Del Fava: Midfielder from Illinois State University selected 12th overall
Taylor Leach: Defender, Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC (Sweedish Damallsvenskan)
Chestley Strother: Midfielder,Sundvall DFF (Sweedish Division I)
Marissa Sheva: Defender, Deportivo Alavés (Spanish second division)
Holly Daugirda: Midfielder, University of Utah
Departures and injuries:
Erika Tymrak retired, Mandy Laddish retired, Becca Morros was waived and is now an assistant coach for Sky Blue FC, Sydney Miramontes retired, Sam Johnson retired
Strengths: ARod is back and this time she’s got the armband. Maybe it’s just reckless optimism on my end but newly named captain Amy Rodriguez seems absolutely buzzing with the competitive energy that fans have come to know and love (and fear?). There is an almost palpable intensity that she seems to be carrying and one can only hope that being on the end of one of her death glares is pushing her teammates to get on the same level. Unhappy with their final standings the past two seasons the returning players on this team seem hungry to make an impact during this year’s Challenge Cup. While many changes have been made both to the roster and to the coaching staff this may look like a whole new team but (once again reckless optimism) another way to look at it is the Royals have opted to refresh their bench and bring in younger talent to develop. When you look at a comprehensive list of departures from the club it looks more devastating than it will likely end up being considering the Royals will have all but 3 of their regular starters returning to play in the Challenge Cup and 2 of the players missing from their usual starting lineup were out for a good portion of last summer for the World Cup so their absences should not be too much of an adjustment.
Biggest Question Mark: With a new head coach almost everything becomes a question mark. Will Harrington try out a new system and play around with different formations throughout the tournament? There are a number of versatile players on the Royals roster which allows room for creativity when it comes to filling gaps in a lineup or matching up against your opponent. Will you see Weber in the midfield? ARod as a center forward again? Will O’Hara play as a forward again? Let’s be real on that last one, no you won’t. The point is nobody knows what Craig Harrington’s Utah is going to look like yet. So, as far as what the biggest question mark is for this team it has to be Harrington. Oh and the Becky Sauerbrunn-sized-hole in the backline but we’re not ready to talk about that yet.
Preliminary Round Matchups
How fair was Utah’s draw?
Utah initially drew one of the toughest preliminary rounds, if not the toughest path to the quarter finals. However with the Orlando Pride having to back out of the tournament the Royals were given a second chance with a partially improved schedule. Instead of facing the Washington Spirit and the North Carolina Courage, the Royals will now match up against the Houston Dash and Sky Blue FC. While both clubs have made a lot of changes in the offseason the teams finished among the last 3 in the NWSL in the 2019 season. While all games are a battle in the NWSL, it would not be a stretch to say Utah Royals may have benefitted the most from the reschedule.
Preview of Preliminary Round Match-ups
Houston Dash on June 30th: Do not be mistaken by the names on the schedule this is actually a matchup between Dash forward Katie Stengel and the entirety of the Utah Royals organization. Jokes aside this matchup is sure to have an interesting undertone with Stengel facing off against her former club in each side’s first match of 2020. This will be the first look at Harrington’s Utah side and the Dash should be a good opponent to kick the year off against seeing as with all of the changes Houston has made in the offseason the team is about as new of a group as Utah.
Sky Blue FC on July 4th: The last time Utah played Sky Blue the Royals beat Sky Blue 3-0 and went on to play 4 more games without losing and seemingly turned their season around. This matchup will look much different however with Sky Blue making big moves in every aspect of their club in the offseason. While not all of the new talent on the roster will be able to participate in the Challenge Cup the club is showing up with a new level of confidence. With new players like Purce, Onumonu, Lewandowski, Zerboni and more this is not the Sky Blue we have come to know and they are going to be a fierce opponent.
Chicago Red Stars on July 12th: The Royals managed to take 3 points from the Red Stars last season and this matchup is sure to be interesting considering the two sides have swapped a fair amount of personnel throughout the offseason. With the arrival of Harrington from Chicago, Utah’s staff saw the departure of assistant coach Scott Parkinson who took Harrington’s old position with the Red Stars. In addition to exchanging coaches, Makenzy Doniak was traded from Utah to Chicago before the draft, this will be her first match against her former club.
OL Reign July 8th: Last season Utah went 1-2 against the Reign. The OL Reign has undergone many changes throughout the offseason so it is hard to predict how this matchup will look this time around. Jess Fishlock is back along with a whole onslaught of international talent so the club is sure to be a competitive side but with a new coach and new ownership who is to say what that will look like in the landscape of the Challenge Cup.
Overall it is too soon to tell how far the Utah Royals will go in the Challenge Cup. With it being a “transition” year for the club you may not want to put too much money on the Royals bringing home the 2020 Challenge Cup. That being said, do not underestimate the ability of ARod to put the game on her back and bring home a W.
By Katie Clark
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos