Royals end inaugural season with a win — now they must up the ante in 2019

Photo courtesy Roscoe Myrick: Royals midfielder Gunny Jonsdottir celebrates with fans at Rio Tinto Stadium after the Royals defeated Chicago 2-1 in their 2018 regular-season finale on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

Sandy • The sun-stained seats around Rio Tinto Stadium were much more obvious than they were five months ago, when they were filled to the brim in Sandy, Royal gold and blue at every turn, scarves hoisted high, hopes even higher. That mid-April afternoon signaled a shift in the Utah sports realm, announcing the arrival of the state’s latest professional franchise, and the people rolled out a worthy welcome.

The 19,203 in attendance on that bluebird spring day turned Real Salt Lake’s red home base pure gold.

Five months later, as Utah Royals FC waved goodbye to its fan base as the inaugural NWSL season along the Wasatch Front came to its first-ever end, it was another sunny day. The opponent was the same. The result was different, but all this time later, the postseason was barely out of reach, so they promised to put on one last show for their faithful supporters, the 11,851 who showed up in gold.

It was time to give them something to be proud of, the Royals said this week, to build momentum; to show their appreciation in the 2-1 win, but also to reel in some who might’ve been on the fence, or might still be there.

For as much responsibility as they have on the field, they also understand their job is to further add to and build upon this start-up fan base. They’ll never be Portland, nor do they have to be. The Thorns' following is, as Royals head coach Laura Harvey explained, “its own little enigma.” Utah finished the year averaging nearly 9,500 fans a match in 2018, second to the usual near-sellouts in Portland.

“Everything we have here from the facilities, how the girls are treated in and around the city, is something I believe that players want to be a part of,” Harvey said, “and I think fans are going to want to enjoy.”

They certainly did Saturday, as the Royals went into the offseason as winners, taking victory laps around Rio Tinto, giving thanks. They did in the 55th minute when Amy Rodriguez’s volley pinged off the post and in to tie the match against the Chicago Red Stars. They did even more so when Katie Stengel’s header in the 64th minute hit the back of the net to give the Royals a 2-1 advantage.

“To end the season on a much higher note than we started is the whole point of the game,” Stengel said.

Together, they roared.

“I think we’re just starting,” said defender Kelley O’Hara. “We’ve had a good following this year, but I think it can continue to grow and be more prevalent through community and city. That takes time.”

Now comes the hard part. They know it, too. Making sure that there is no sophomore slump, on or off the field in Sandy. That star power is retained, and also, added here. Fans will salute a defensive clearance or stiff tackle at midfield, but there’s nothing like the assuredness of a go-to star. Chicago’s Sam Kerr added to her NWSL leading-scorer’s tally with a header in the 39th. It was her 16th goal in 2018.

The Royals acquired American star Christen Press this summer. Can the 29-year-old be that in 2019?Utah upped the ante in NWSL in several ways in its expansion campaign. Players heard from friends around the league about how jealous they were of the setup here and how it served as the next phase of the league’s evolution.

“I feel that free agency would be way easier to get players here,” Harvey said, laughing. “I feel we’ve put a stamp out there and this is a club that people want to be part of. We want it to be the best club in the world, and we’re going to keep striving for that.”

They signed off the only way they could, clapping in unison with the Royals fans, cheering their club’s name again and again, as the uncertainty and excitement of the first offseason awaits.

“It’s how you want to end,” Harvey said.