Utah Royals hope to help elevate NWSL to historic levels

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Royals FC practice indoors Thursday at the practice facility in Herriman.

Yes, the Utah Royals locker room is fancy. It’s brand new, connected to a training room and a lounge. It’s filled with amenities beyond necessity.

There’s a separate vanity area with lights that bring out every pore in a person’s face, and the TV the team watches film on is surrounded by couches. Each player has a monogrammed robe.

But that’s not why the players are overwhelmed, some of them to tears, by the setup.

“When you come here, you just truly feel like a professional,” said Royals and Canada national team midfielder Desiree Scott. “From the kit to the locker room to having meals prepped for us before and after practice, I just think you truly feel like you’re a soccer player.”

The majority of players have seen the growing pains of a league getting off the ground. If they haven’t experienced it themselves, they at least have heard from other players about the struggles of rotating stadiums and practice facilities while clubs were unable to secure long-term contracts, getting dressed and receiving treatment in makeshift locker rooms and training rooms, not having a place to call their own.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is known for its high level of play. And yet the reputation of being the poor league still clings to it as its sixth season takes off.


Last month, Utah Royals defender Becca Moros stood at the sleek countertop in her fully furnished Midvale two-bedroom apartment she shares with a teammate, spreading jam on toast and sipping coffee. At 32, Moros is old enough to have seen two absences of top-tier women’s soccer in the United States during her playing career. She joined the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) league when it rose, then she escaped to play in Japan when it fell. She returned to the U.S. to join the Portland Thorns in 2014, the second year of the NWSL.

“I think Salt Lake, there’s potential to do the same thing,” she said about the Thorns, which are considered the gold standard of NWSL franchises. “If we can do that — or when we do that — that argument of, ‘Oh, that’s just Portland’ dissolves and the bar moves again.”

Moros always assumed up until this season that she’d make the biggest impact on the game after she had retired from playing, and was done, as she put it “surviving.” But now she’s rethinking that assumption.

HOME OPENER<br>CHICAGO RED STARS AT UTAH ROYALS<br>When • Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Rio Tinto Stadium<br>TV • Lifetime

“I’m now a part of this club where it’s not about surviving,” she said. “It is about setting new limits and breaking through ceilings and doing these things that haven’t been done yet.”

Utah hasn’t just embraced Portland as a blueprint — it has made the Thorns its competition for everything off the field: attendance, player accommodations, facilities.

It’s a rivalry Thorns owner Merritt Paulson welcomes and even put in place when he urged Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen to join the league in November.

“Hopefully the Royals kill it this year,” Paulson said a week before the NWSL season opened. “There is nothing that would make me happier.”

It’s a rivalry that could propel the league, to the benefit of players.

Many of the league’s teams provide housing for players, but Hansen put up all the Royals players in one of his Wasatch Group complexes, thanks to a deal he struck with the NWSL before agreeing to buy the franchise.

Hansen said he argued for an expansion of the relocation budget, due to the short window to move an entire team to Utah, but that increase only applies for this season. So he and Royals managing director Stephanie Lee plan to take eight initiatives to improve quality of life for players off the field to the league’s board in May, including a call for an increase in housing allowances.

“He 100 percent has a voice on that board,” Royals coach Laura Harvey said, “and a voice that people want to listen to and will appreciate because of what he’s invested here.”


The NWSL is being pulled from two directions. On the one hand, players, coaches and owners want to continue pushing the league forward. On the other, financial pressures have forced two top-tier women’s soccer leagues to fold.

Over the past five years the NWSL has steadily introduced higher standards in the hope that they will improve players’ lives and playing experience. Those standards include an increase in salary cap and an expansion of technical-staff positions.

That gradual progress has come under fire, however, by players and the media for not accelerating quickly enough.

“You cannot degrade your product internally and then try to sell it externally,” Moros said. “People are not dumb. If you set it up like a charity, people are going to treat it that way. If you set it up like a professional team, people are going to treat it that way. You make a big deal out of games and put it in a great environment, people want to be part of the environment. You don’t create any environment at all, people don’t want to come.”

As recently as 2016, the Seattle Reign, coached by Harvey, were forced to face the Western New York Flash on a smaller-than-regulation-size field painted across a Triple-A baseball diamond. The Flash had been pushed out of their regular stadium for a music festival.

Players took to Twitter in outrage, and former U.S. women’s national team goalkeeper Hope Solo wrote in a blog post that the field issue was a reflection of a widespread problem.

“While Sunday’s field issues made national headlines,” she wrote, “which we were all so glad to see, the truth is that the standards of our league are so inconsistent and disappointing across the board, these kinds of incidents are really the rule and not the exception.”


The original eight NWSL club owners resurrected the league from the ashes of the WPS and learned from that league’s mistakes. They partnered with the United States Soccer Federation to launch the NWSL and slashed costs with a plan to steadily increase wages.

“Previous leagues have failed because they tried to run before they were walking,” Lee said, “and I think that this league has done a really good job of building on those things.”

The NWSL enters its sixth season this year. Neither of its predecessors made it to a fourth.

“For the first five years of this league, after what had happened with the WPS, it was always about, ‘Can we make sure this NWSL league survives?’” the Royals’ Harvey said. “Now, as a collective, we all want the same thing, which is now to push it onto another level and make it thrive across the country and internationally as well. And I think everybody who’s in the league wants that. We’ve just got to make sure we get on the same page of how we can get there.”

That’s the tricky part. Club budgets vary widely, due to differences in ownership and revenue. FC Kansas City averaged 1,788 fans per match before folding, while Portland drew nearly 10 times that.

2017 AVERAGE NWSL ATTENDANCE BY CLUB <br>Portland Thorns • 17,678. <br>Orlando Pride • 6,187. <br>North Carolina Courage • 4,389. <br>Houston Dash • 4,329 <br>Seattle Reign FC • 4,037 <br>Washington Spirit • 3,491. <br>Chicago Red Stars • 3,198. <br>Boston Breakers • 2,896. <br>Sky Blue FC • 2,613. <br>FC Kansas City • 1,788. <br>League average • 5,061. <br>CHICAGO RED STARS AT UTAH ROYALS <br>When • 1:30 p.m. Saturday. <br>TV • Lifetime Network. <br>Home opener • The festivities surrounding the inaugural home game for the new Utah club include a pregame concert from Royal Bliss and a postgame set by triple-platinum artist Rachel Platten.

“You have to be more creative, let’s face it,” Sky Blue FC president and general manager Tony Novo said about his New Jersey franchise. “We have a smaller staff than what an MLS organization might have. … I think that’s the biggest struggle, is just having that stadium, resources, office space and everything together.”

Despite having two clubs fold in the offseason, Paulson said he looks at the state of the league “with more optimism than I ever have,” thanks to the addition of Utah.

“The league’s getting stronger,” the Portland owner said, “and it’s on much more solid ground, and I’m really, really, really eager to see what happens with the Royals this year.”


As the Royals pull on their jerseys Saturday afternoon, they’ll do so in front of newly constructed lockers, each sporting a name plate: Sauerbrunn, O’Hara, Scott, Jonsdottir.

They will lace up their cleats and emerge from the tunnel into a soccer-specific stadium. They’ll look up at the swarms of fans in yellow — Hansen promised them it would be a packed house — and their families in the stands, flown out and put up by the club.

Then, for the first time on their home turf, they’ll do what they moved out to Utah to do. What all the new facilities, team staffers, and bells and whistles have made it easier to do. They’ll play.