Utah Royals FC rookie Michelle Maemone relishing opportunity as a starter

(Photo courtesy of Utah Royals FC) Rookie defender Michelle Maemone almost didn't declare for the NWSL draft. Now she has become a starer for the Royals and is making the most of the opportunity.

Michelle Maemone still can’t believe Utah Royals FC coach Laura Harvey picked her.

The 22-year-old Royals left back was chosen 23rd overall in the third round of the 2019 National Women’s Soccer League draft. But Maemone almost didn’t declare for the draft at all. She thought because she attended a relatively low-profile soccer program at Pepperdine University, no one at the professional level would even know who she was.

Maemone ended up declaring because her coach at Pepperdine told her there were some teams interested in her. So after putting together an impromptu highlight package and submitting the necessary forms, her name showed up on the draft board on the day of the draft. Maemone didn’t even attend the event in Chicago; she watched it on her phone while in between classes.

Then Harvey picked her.

“Immediate tears,” Maemone told The Salt Lake Tribune, recalling the moment she heard her name. “I never believed it could happen.”

But it did. Now Maemone — who missed her Pepperdine graduation last week because she was in Orlando — has a starting role on the Royals, who have won their first two games of the season. And rookies getting starting spots is not something that happens very often in any sport.

Harvey has a reputation of not only trading away draft picks for more experienced players, but also not really giving major minutes to the rookies she does draft. However, the second-year Royals coach does like to surprise people with the picks she makes.

“It’s not that I’m opposed to the rookies,” Harvey said last week. “I think that I just don’t want to build my team around that. … But I always like to have lower draft picks because I always think there’s some diamonds in the rough that no one knows about.”

And practically no one knew about Maemone in advance of the draft. That is, except for Harvey and her staff. Maemone said the Royals learned about her because they were scouting her Pepperdine teammate, Hailey Harbison, who was picked in the first round by the North Carolina Courage. But upon seeing Maemone on film, URFC became interested in her.

The only reason she was watching the draft was to see if any of her college teammates would get drafted because they had “a better chance,” Maemone said.

But Harvey picked her. Because of that, Maemone is relishing in the opportunity she has to make an impact on the Royals so early in her career. And so far it’s working.

“You just need to always be ready and she’s come in and done that,” defender Rachel Corsie said of Maemone. “She showed from the first minute she had the work ethic. She’s keen to learn. … I think over the course of this year and beyond, she’s just going to keep getting better and better.”

(Photo courtesy of Utah Royals FC) Rookie defender Michelle Maemone tracks a Washington Spirit player during the Royals' home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 20, 2019 in Sandy, Utah.

Maemone has made this impact on her team despite recovering from an unknown illness that kept her bedridden with a 101-degree fever the day before Utah’s home opener. She played 60 minutes in that game, lost her voice, played 45 minutes against the Orlando Pride the week after, and still is not 100 percent healthy.

“I think that says a lot about the character that she is, the human that she is, the professional she’s becoming — that she’s willing to sacrifice herself and put herself out there for the team,” Harvey said. “I think not only has that been a huge benefit to her, but I think it’s shown the rest of the group that she’s willing to give whatever it takes to be successful. I think that can’t be overshadowed.”

Maemone said Corsie and defender Kelley O’Hara are two players who have made a significant effort to make her feel welcome to the team. She and Corsie have gone out for coffee and watched film, and previously had conversations about possibly playing next to each other.

“She’s one of the best center backs in the world,” Maemone said of Corsie. “So to learn from her, I feel so incredibly fortunate and lucky. And to be able to play next to her is just that much cooler.”

Maemone grew up watching O’Hara, who has come off the bench for the Royals this season due to her recovery from an ankle injury. So it’s still surreal to her that she gets to play on the same team as one of her soccer heroines.

“I get to practice with the player I want to be like on the field,” Maemone said. “It’s amazing. It’s so incredible.”

Now that O’Hara and the other United States Women’s National Team players have gone to prepare for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup, it’s likely Maemone will keep her starting spot. It's a world apart from before the draft, when she didn’t know whether she would ever play soccer again.

“Humble doesn’t even sum up and thankful could never encapsulate what I felt because there were no words,” Maemone said. “I was so so taken aback. So incredibly blessed to be given the opportunity I was given. And now to be playing is even that much more of a shock. I wasn’t expecting it at all. It's been such an unpredictable but absolutely life-changing and amazing experience so far.”

And it’s all because Harvey picked her.


At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy

Kickoff » Friday, 7:30 p.m. MDT

Last meeting » URFC 2, Chicago 1 (Sept. 8, 2018, Rio Tinto Stadium)

Records » URFC 2-0-0, Chicago 1-0-2

About Chicago » Morgan Brian, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher are on international duty for the USWNT. … Vanessa DiBernardo (left hip), Nikki Stanton (left hip), Arin Wright (right thigh) are questionable. … Yuki Nagasato leads team with three goals and two assists, while Sam Kerr has two goals.

About URFC » Royals are the only team in the NWSL with no losses or ties. … Becky Sauerbrunn, Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara are on international duty. Sydney Miramontez (right foot), Becca Moros (left knee), Diana Matheson (left foot), Maddie Nolf (left hip), Taylor Lytle (left foot) are out. … Makenzy Doniak (left knee) is questionable. … Have shut out both opponents so far this season.