For the past two years, the Utah Royals FC has had aspirations of making the playoffs in the National Women’s Soccer League. Even in the club’s inaugural season, which started only a few months after owner Dell Loy Hansen decided to bring a women’s soccer team to Salt Lake City, there was a sense that it had enough talent to compete at a high level.
Now, after two consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs, there’s a sense of deep frustration around the Royals.
“It’s really, really hard for me not to look at it as a failure and be disappointed,” Royals general manager Stephanie Lee said. “And in some regards, it is. I think my job at the moment is to look at everything — top-down, down-up, myself included — in what went wrong, what prevented us from being successful and how do we change that for next year.”
The start to Utah’s season looked promising. The team won its first three games — all shutouts — and sat atop the NWSL standings in two separate weeks. And even when seven of their players were away competing in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, the Royals held their own and stayed above the playoff line.
Season Highlight: Becky Sauerbrunn’s first goal in a Royals uniform. Her header against the Portland Thorns on Sept. 6 not only sealed the win for Utah, it also capped a five-game unbeaten streak and put the team in third place in the NWSL.
Season Lowlight: The losing streak that cost the Royals the playoffs. Despite a strong August, Utah lost four games in a row and with that, a postseason berth, marking the second straight year the club missed the playoffs.
What’s Next: An uncertain offseason. There will be a new NWSL team next season, and with that comes an expansion draft. With general manager Stephanie Lee already promising changes are coming with the roster, there’s no telling who will be protected, who won’t and who will opt to leave on their own.
But the team went through a July stretch that landed them in seventh place among the nine teams in the league. Utah turned it around in August, only to lose four straight in September and play themselves out of a playoff berth.
Coach Laura Harvey, speaking after the team’s season-ending win over the Houston Dash, said the Royals have to find ways to treat every game the same if it wants to make the playoffs next season. She said throughout the season, Utah had difficulty beating teams below it in the standings, but seemed to show up against the better teams.
“We need consistency,” Harvey said. “I think if you look at our performances, there’s games that we’re brilliant, there’s games that we’re really not. And within that consistency, we have to find a way to win difficult games. I think we’ve done that this year at times, but we haven’t done that enough.”
Lee hinted that there could be significant changes coming to the roster.
“The reality is that something has to change,” Lee said before Utah’s final game of the season. “And I think that I have to figure that out.”
When asked if that statement extended to Harvey, Lee demurred. Harvey said she expects to return to Utah next season, though she won’t be the next coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team.
Lee included herself when discussing how the Royals didn’t live up to their own expectations.
“I don’t hold myself out of that realm at all,” Lee said. “I have to look at myself in this and I have to look at what our goals are and how I can help contribute to them and how I didn’t accomplish them this year.”
Harvey thinks the team’s inconsistent play may have something to do with pressure, and how the Royals deal with it. She said when the team played poorly in July and was well out of the playoff picture, it played more freely and started winning games perhaps because there was nothing at stake at the time.
But when the final few games of the season came around, and the Royals needed a result in every single one of them to stay above the playoff line, they couldn’t get it done.
“I think they’re the things that we really have to dig deep in,” Harvey said.
Some players openly expressed their frustration at the end of the season. But perhaps no one was more upset than forward Amy Rodriguez, who won Golden Boot award for leading the team in scoring.
She said she was ending the season with a bitter taste in her mouth, and offered something of a promise to fans after a second consecutive disappointing season.
“I guarantee we will come out better than we did this year,” Rodriguez said.
THREE ROYALS EARN NWSL HONORS
Two Utah Royals FC players were named Thursday to the National Women’s Soccer League’s Best XI list.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn and forward Christen Press received the honor, which highlights the best 11 players in the league as voted by media, fans, general managers, coaches, owners and players. Defender Kelley O’Hara, who also plays for the Royals, was named to the Second XI list.
“Congratulations to Becky, Kelley and Christen,” Royals general manager Stephanie Lee said in a news release. “They’ve had an amazing year for their careers, and we feel lucky to have them here in Utah and be a part of their journey.”
Sauerbrunn played 14 games and 1,260 minutes for the Royals. She was also the team’s captain for the entire season.
Press also played in 14 games, scored eight goals and added two assists.
O’Hara was hampered by an ankle injury for the majority of the NWSL season. She appeared in only for games for the Royals and started two. She recorded one assist.
O’Hara was named to the Women’s World 11 for her performance in the World Cup. Sauerbrunn was on the short list for that accolade.
Sauerbrunn, Press and O’Hara played for the U.S. Women’s National Team that won the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup over the summer.