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Utah Royals a mystery wrapped in an enigma

New coach, a need for lots of new players... what’s this team all about?

SOCCER: AUG 17 NWSL - Utah Royals FC at Orlando Pride Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Anyone who tells you they have any idea what Utah Royals FC is going to look like is lying to you. I don’t even think new head coach Craig Harrington is sure what he’s going to see during the NWSL Challenge Cup. Too much has changed, and the global pandemic has halted any plans Harrington had to make the team his own.

Previous manager Laura Harvey departed for a role with U.S. Soccer this offseason, while captain Becky Sauerbrunn was traded to the Portland Thorns. Christen Press, comfortably the team’s best player, has decided not to participate in the Challenge Cup due to concerns about Covid-19. It’s extremely difficult to envision a Royals team without those three people involved.

“I’m trying to learn the players,” Harrington says. “Who can do what, who do I trust to give enough freedom to express themselves.”

For that reason, the Challenge Cup is going to be a lot more about that than results for Utah.

“It at least gives Harrington an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t,” Cindy Lara of RSL Soapbox says about the tournament. “And if Utah really is wanting to focus on the younger players, this gives them the chance, too.”

Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights

With Press unavailable, Tziarra King is going to get plenty of minutes. She might have some trouble adjusting to the speed and physicality of pro ball at first, but she’s one of the most entertaining players in America when she’s on her game.

Who’s missing?

Press is the only player Utah doesn’t have available.

Projected lineup

Among all of the teams, I have the lowest degree of confidence about a potential Utah lineup. I also can’t build one that doesn’t have a player who is either out of position, or who I don’t rate highly. I think this team could struggle.

Lineup questions

New defensive midfielder Aminata Diallo is with the Royals, but she wasn’t able to arrive until just before the tournament. She hasn’t trained with the squad over the last few weeks, so she probably won’t start in the first couple games of the tournament.

Abby Smith starting in goal over Nicole Barnhart is a pure guess based on the team bringing in a new coach. Harrington is going to be planning for the future, rather than trying to see if he can squeak out a few more results with a legend in net. He needs to see if Smith is his No. 1 going forward, or if he needs to go out and get a new keeper.

Harrington says that Gaby Vincent is a pure center back, while Elizabeth Ball — who arrived in the Sauerbrunn trade — is a bit more of a utility player. More on them later.

How do the Royals play?

Not that any of last year’s stats are particularly relevant to this year’s Utah squad, but we can talk a bit about how it did play.

The Royals were a bit unlucky to not make the playoffs. Utah was 4th in both Expected Goals difference and non-penalty xG. Players other than Press and Amy Rodriguez just couldn’t finish their chances.

Utah had a low number of high press shots and didn’t challenge for the ball high up the field. It aggressively pressed fewer defensive passes than anyone else and won the ball back fewer times than anyone else. I have a theory for why.

Utah is an old team

Last season’s Royals had an average age of 28.7. That’s over two years older than the league average. And that was without 36-year-old Diana Matheson, who is expected to play significant minutes during the Challenge Cup.

Matheson, Press, Barnhart, Scott, Rodriguez, Kelley O’Hara, Veró Boquete and Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir are all 31 years old or older.

“Honestly, I’m still surprised Matheson is back, and that she’s even allocated with Canada,” Lara says. “Barnhart and Smith are competing for that No. 1 goalkeeper spot, and if Smith wins it, Barnhart may move to player-coach type of role. I think Scott may stick longer than the rest.”

There’s no doubt that Utah needs to get younger, but Harrington isn’t necessarily looking to get rid of a large number of his veterans. He thinks they still have plenty to give.

“They’re all model professionals who look after their bodies, and they’re all very intelligent soccer-wise,” Harrington says. “I’m not sitting here going, let’s get rid of these players, it’s time to move on. I think they’ve got real value for us. It’s up to younger players to come in and try to retire them. But right now, I think that’s a long way off.”

Secretly, I think Harrington will be hoping that some of his younger players manage to prove themselves and win jobs from veterans during this tournament.

Ball and Vincent look like decent core pieces

Previous coach Laura Harvey was notorious for not caring about the draft and not giving a lot of minutes to rookies. But she surprisingly took a bit of a liking to Vincent, who impressed despite being an undrafted rookie. She needs to improve significantly as a tackler, but she has all of the other skills that a coach would want in a center back.

Ball isn’t a Sauerbrunn replacement, but she’s an excellent pickup as a utility player who can play anywhere along the back line, or as a defensive midfielder. She’s almost the opposite of Vincent — she’s already a superb tackler, and needs to work on becoming a more well-rounded defender.

What’s a successful tournament for the Royals?

Getting a lot of minutes for young players and figuring out who’s got a future with the team is the most important thing. Laying down some core style of play principles so everyone knows what’s expected of them heading into next season is important too. I think there’s a possibility Utah doesn’t win a single game in this tournament, but I hope fans aren’t too bothered by that. Harvey drained all the club’s resources during her time in Utah and left Harrington with very little. He has a difficult rebuilding project on his hands.

Schedule

Dash vs. Royals — Tuesday, June 30

Royals vs. Sky Blue — Saturday, July 4

Royals vs. Reign — Wednesday, July 8

Red Stars vs. Royals — Sunday, July 12