Sandy • Utah Royals FC forward Christen Press waited patiently for Washington Spirit fullback Paige Nielsen to make the pass. Once the ball left Nielsen’s feet, Press immediately stuck her left leg out to intercept it, starting a sequence that saw her dribble around and into the 18-yard box for nearly 10 seconds.
In the moment, it appeared Press was looking for an opening to take one her patented strikes toward the goal. But at the last second, she found teammate Lo’eau LaBonta, who had plenty of time to choose where she wanted to place her eventual goal.
The sequence, which occurred within the first 10 minutes of the Utah Royals FC’s victory in their home opener, was a microcosm of the development in Press’ game over her National Women’s Soccer League career. In the last seven years, she’s transformed from a one-dimensional player to an all-around threat.
“She’s more than a goal scorer,” Royals coach Laura Harvey said this this week. “She could be top goal scorer and be the leading assister in any team. She has the ability to do that.”
As a striker for the Chicago Red Stars, her role centered around scoring goals and playing higher up the field, a role she also fills for the United States Women’s National Team. But the longer she stayed with Chicago, the more her role evolved. She became a player expected not only to score, but to also make plays for her teammates.
The addition of responsibility meant Press’ position on the field changed as well. Upon her trade from the Red Stars to the Royals last summer, she found herself playing lower than she ever thought she would.
While Press has embraced multifaceted role, it has been somewhat of an adjustment for her.
“I think it’s been a slow evolution as opposed to a change,” Press said. “I think just as an identity as a player, it’s hard because I’ve had my identity being attached to goal scoring for so long and my role on the national team is still that — to stay higher and let the midfield break pressure. So it is a little bit of an adjustment in an identity perspective, but on the field I think it’s no problem at all.”
But the versatility Press brings to the field has the opportunity to give defenses fits. In the opening minutes of the Washington game, Press dribbled around in much the same way she did when she assisted LaBonta, but shot it instead. That type of unpredictability keeps everyone, including her teammates, on edge — in a good way.
“You always have to be on your toes because you don’t know when she’s going to cut, when she’s going to lay it, when she’s going to make a run,” LaBonta said. “I think that’s what makes her so dangerous because as a teammate when you don’t know and you always have to be on your toes, that makes the defender even more worrisome.”
Press played 11 games last season for the Royals, but scored only two goals. It appears the team as a whole wants to remedy that. Harvey said she wants to put Press in the right positions to score, and midfielder Vero Boquete, who played with Press in Sweden, wants the same for her.
“Now we hope in the next games we can assist her so she can score too,” Boquete said.
Press is one of three USWNT players who are scheduled to leave for the FIFA Women’s World Cup after Saturday’s game against the Orlando Pride. The other two are Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn. So after this weekend, she won’t get to showcase her all-around game in Utah.
But when she returns, possibly with a WWC championship, she’ll have the opportunity to step back into her role with the Royals — go one-on-one when she needs to, figure out what the game needs — and help them achieve their 2019 goal.
“If she can assist with 15 goals this year and score 10 herself then I think she’ll be happy with that and I think then as a team we’ll be where we want to be,” Harvey said. “So bringing both sides of her game into what we want to be is a huge part of who we need to look like.”
UTAH ROYALS FC AT ORLANDO PRIDE
At Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
Kickoff » Saturday, 5:30 p.m. MDT
Live stream » Yahoo Sports
TV » KMYU
Last meeting » Orlando 2, URFC 1 (July 14, 2018, Rio Tinto Stadium)
Records » URFC 1-0-0, Orlando 0-2-1
About Orlando » Tied most recent game against Seattle after two consecutive losses. … Tied for last in the league in shots on goal. … Center back Alanna Kennedy has team’s only goal of the season. …. Marc Skinner is in his first year as head coach. ... Toni Pressley (left hamstring strain) is out.
About URFC » Coming off first home-opening win in franchise history. … Lo’eau LaBonta scored her first goal as a Royals player last week. … Did not win any of three games against the Pride last season (two draws, one loss). ... Sydney Miramontez (right foot), Diana Matheson (right foot), Becca Moros (left knee), Maddie Nolf (hip), Taylor Lytle (left foot) are all out.