Kelly Cousins (née Chambers) knows about building teams and defying odds.
In the span of five seasons in management at Reading FC, Cousins led the organization from the bottom of English football to the Women’s Super League, standing among the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City.
But as Cousins takes on the role of sporting director for the Utah Royals, she says the early odds are against the NWSL expansion team.
“I think I’ve tried to say to everyone, we need to be able to walk before we can run,” Cousins said recently. “There’s no point in us stepping into this, this first league campaign, and going ‘We want to achieve this, we want to win that.’ For us, it’s going to be a case of we need to build a team, first and foremost.”
And there is a lot still to build.
The Royals are back in Utah, preparing for the start of the 2024 season. But apart from the club’s name, the organization has taken on a complete overhaul.
For Cousins, head coach Amy Rodriguez, and team president Michelle Hyncik, the challenges are obvious: The team is in a transitory period, with no players on the roster and facilities still under construction. But with free agency and the expansion draft around the corner, the organization is looking to develop a bottom-up culture, in many ways representing the origins of Cousins’ Reading FC teams.
The English executive began her football career in 2007 as a player for Reading. Following five seasons on the pitch, Cousins moved through the ranks of Reading FC’s front office, eventually assuming the role of head coach.
“To expect a team to come in, play together, and be successful straightaway, is ... it’s impossible,” Cousins said. “We want to give ourselves time to really embed those plays in, for Amy to really stamp her playing philosophy and what she wants from the players and how we want the environment to be. And hopefully then if we embed that really well, we can look to be a little bit more successful later on.”
Fortunately, the team has more time to get settled than the previous iteration of the organization, which had fewer than 120 days from the announcement of the team’s relocation to Its first game. With play starting in 2024, Cousins and her brain trust are using this time to develop new plans for a multi-million dollar Royal’s-exclusive training facility in Herriman, to speak with owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith about the implementation of cutting-edge data analytics systems, and to make sure that the return of women’s soccer to Utah is impactful off the field.
“I think it’s easy to say that our mission is going to be advancing players and women in the community and helping them in their careers,” Hyncik said. “But it’s another thing for ownership to actually do that and prioritize that. [Ownership] wants to use this as a vehicle for change, for advancing, helping players off the field, and helping women in the front office.”
The Royals can begin signing players on Sept. 22. The team also holds the first pick in the 2024 NWSL expansion draft.