Utah Royals expect to compete for NWSL championship next season

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals FC hosts Washington Spirit, NWSL soccer at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Wed. Aug. 8, 2018. The Royals gather following their 1-0 win.

It all happened so fast.

When the Utah Royals embarked on their inaugural season in the National Women’s Soccer League in March, the players, coaches and front office didn’t know what to expect. There were no win totals, no playoff or championship hopes in mind.

After all, the team had formed in 90 days after Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen scooped up the roster remnants of the dissolved FC Kansas City franchise.

“I honestly didn’t have the time to have expectations,” said Royals and RSL general manager Craig Waibel.

But then the Royals started to show promise. Armed with Amy Rodriguez, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press — all of whom were mainstays on the U.S. Women’s National Team — the team played well enough for it to believe it could make a serious playoff push, even in Year 1.

But when it became clear just before the season ended that the Royals wouldn’t make the playoffs, that Cinderella story ground to a halt. They ended their season with a 9-7-8 record and 35 points — one spot below the playoff line.

Although it was the Royals' first season in existence, several players couldn’t help but feel frustration at how the year ended. Royals coach Laura Harvey was right there with them.

“There was frustration that we didn’t get there because we got so close,” Harvey said. “There was frustration that we drew games when we should have won them.”

Amid that frustration, however, was a sense of confidence. If the Royals barely missed the playoffs in their inaugural year in Utah, they thought, imagine how competitive they can be with a full year under their belt.

“We all kind of have a chip on our shoulder from not making the playoffs,” midfielder Erika Tymrak said. “I think it’s a really good place to build off of and I’m really excited to see how we progress and how we grow leading to next season.”

Utah’s focus this offseason, Waibel said, is to ensure the team makes the moves possible to compete at the top of the NWSL in Year 2. From the sound of it, the organization believes it has realistic championship aspirations.

“We’ve got our own adjustments to make [during the] the offseason,” Waibel said. “But we will, and we’ll challenge for a championship next year for sure.”


• The Royals drew a near-sellout crowd of 19,023 for their historic home opener, and went on to average 9,466 fans per game at Rio Tinto Stadium, which ranked second in the NWSL, behind only the Portland Timbers.

• The Royals never lost to eventual NWSL champions North Carolina. In three meetings, the Royals drew two and won one.

• Three Royals players — Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn and Christen Press — were selected to play for the U.S. Women’s National Team in a World Cup qualifying tournament.

Those moves will take time, but they will be targeted. The Royals scored 22 goals last season, which was third-least in the league. Waibel said scoring will be a focus for the management as it figures out which players are available.

“At the end of the day, I think any team is going to want to score more goals,” Waibel said. “We’re going to focus on the parts of the field that can help us do that.”

Harvey set her expectations at the start of the year based on what Kansas City did the year before. When this season ended, she was pleased with the fact that the Royals finished with a better record than KC did in its final season (8-9-7).

Harvey also said she liked the roster moves that were made both before and during the season. Unfortunately, however, two of her main players’ seasons ended prematurely. Those players, Harvey said, were acquired with personnel that could have made a significant impact on the field.

But for Harvey, the core of the roster gives the Royals a legitimate shot at the NWSL title next season.

“I think now we have a good base of our squad and our team and what our identity wants to be on the field,” Harvey said. “But I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface on how far we can go.”

Things may have happened fast for the Royals, but they appear to be done playing catch-up.