Utah Royals have talent to spare as NWSL season opens

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals at practice in Sandy, Tuesday March 20, 2018. Coach Laura Harvey.

Before her team was disbanded, before she was thrown into a dispersal draft, before she was selected by Utah Royals FC, goalkeeper Abby Smith knew the newest NWSL club, the one she would come to play for, was led by a highly respected coach.

“You hear the good and bad things with coaches,” Smith said, “but I have yet to hear a bad thing about Laura [Harvey].”

One of Utah’s first moves in an expedited launch this offseason was to hire Harvey, and it has paid off. Not only an asset as a coach, Harvey’s addition also helped pique players’ interest in the club and ensured an influx of international talent. The Royals may not be polished after getting less than two weeks to train as a full squad due to international callups, but the group has potential.

The Royals head into the regular season carrying five federation players. Three had their rights assigned to the Royals when FC Kansas City folded, and Utah traded for the other two. They didn’t have their choice of where to go, but players do have some leverage in negotiations, as evident through the drama of the Christen Press trade to Houston and to a lesser extent Utah sending Sydney Leroux to Orlando to be with her husband Dom Dwyer in exchange for a first-round draft pick.

Harvey added to the draw of committing to the Royals for players like U.S. women’s national team co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn.

“She just gets the game,” Sauerbrunn said. “She gets it, and she’s able to relate it to us and coach and teach. And I think some coaches can get the game but maybe can’t translate it to the players, and vice versa. Some coaches can just get the most out of their players inspirationally but maybe don’t have the greatest tactics. I think she’s one of the coaches that can do both.”

In addition to assembling a group of five federation players, topped only by North Carolina with six, Harvey did what she has done since she became a coach in Seattle: scout international talent. The Royals roster includes five international players, four of whom take up international spots.

“I think they have to be able to compete physically and athletically,” Harvey said. “…. After that, it’s what attributes can they bring that we don’t already have. I don’t believe in just brining an international player over for the sake of it. I think they’ve got to give something a little bit different than what you could get from the college draft, from a trade.”

Iceland international Gunnhildur Jonsdottir brings a physical attacking presence in the midfield. Scotland captain Rachel Corsie, who because of her green card does not take up an international roster spot, adds experience to the back line. Australian international Katrina Gorry is a proven goal scorer. She is away on international duty, scheduled to report to Utah by April 22.

“I think from an Orlando perspective, they’re not going to know what we’re going to look like [in the season opener] because we don’t know what we’re going to look like,” Harvey said with a laugh. “I think having players that haven’t played in the league before, they’re just not going to know what they’re going to give.

“And thankfully we’ve been able to see them in training and see what they can bring to a team, so I’m excited to finally put something out on the field that I think we’re going to be proud of.”

Regardless of the crunched preparation time, Harvey’s style will be imprinted on the team. She had the advantage of inheriting a core of Kansas City players who were coached by Vlatko Andonovski, one of a select few NWSL managers who also plays a possession-based style of soccer. Harvey’s and Andonovski’s styles do, however, differ in subtle ways, especially on the defensive end.

The Royals are scheduled to open their inaugural regular-season campaign Saturday at Orlando.

“Having the preseason the way it was this year was tough, especially with a new team,” Harvey said. “Going into Orlando, it would be hard to think that we’re going to be exactly where we want to be. But going there is going to give us a really good evaluation of where we’re at.”

UTAH ROYALS AT ORLANDO PRIDE <br>When • 5:30 p.m. MT Saturday <br>Where • Orlando City Stadium