Stifling defense fuels the Utah Royals FC’s hot start, and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart is at the center of it

(Photo courtesy of Utah Royals FC) Goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart makes a pass during a recent game. The 37-year-old veteran has collected three shutouts in the first three wins of the season for the Royals.

Sandy • As the dynamic Samantha Kerr of the Chicago Red Stars charged toward the Utah Royals’ goal, keeper Nicole Barnhart tracked her every touch.

The space between them narrowed. Kerr steadied herself before she shot, attempting to beat Barnhart to the back post. But the veteran Royals keeper had already cut off Kerr’s angle, and stopped the ball cleanly — maybe even easily — with her abdomen.

Although just one of three saves in the Royals’ third consecutive shutout win, it was the type that Barnhart — “Barnie” to her teammates — has perfected in her 15-year pro career. She has a nose for the ball, a knack for being in the right place, and a knowledge of the game so deep it looks like second nature to her.

“She’s a joke of a human,” Royals coach Laura Harvey said after the game. She meant it as a compliment.

To say that Barnhart’s career has been illustrious might be an understatement. She’s won two Olympic gold medals and two National Women’s Soccer League championships. She’s made 54 appearances for the United States Women’s National Team and amassed 58 career shutouts.

But even with all those accolades, Barnhart’s had to overcome adversity. She didn’t play a single second in those Olympic runs because she was one of the backups to Hope Solo. She underwent ankle surgery in last year’s offseason, losing the starting spot she had with now-defunct FC Kansas City.

The recovery from the injury took longer than she thought, but Barnhart, 37, eventually got the opportunity to play eight games with Utah last season after Abby Smith got called up with the USWNT and suffered an injury. Coming into this season, Barnhart and the 25-year-old Smith were competing for the starting role, keeper coach Jason Batty said. And Barnhart won out.

“We are so fortunate to have the two goalkeepers we have. We know that,” Harvey said. “Barnie keeps producing performances every week that makes it really difficult for us to change things. But she also knows she’s got someone chomping at her heels, which I think pushes her on even more because, again, she’s a winner.”


• Two-time Olympic gold medalist with USWNT

• Two-time NWSL champion with FC Kansas City

• 2013 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year

• 58 career clean sheets

• 54 caps with the USWNT

Midfielder Erika Tymrak has played on the same team as Barnhart for the past seven years. Even that long ago, Tymrak recalls watching Barnhart making saves so difficult that she would think to herself, “Holy crap.”

At times, Barnhart would be the difference.

“She can win games,” Tymrak said. “You don’t really see that in goalies many times.”

While goalkeeping involves a host of skills any player can learn, Batty, said Barnhart’s experience has made managing and reading the game instinctual. In addition, her height — 5-foot-10 — gives her a physical advantage as well.

“I don’t think she’s always been the most athletic keeper in the world,” Batty said. “But she’s a big frame. She fills the goal. And she makes the saves that she needs to make at the right time.”

Last year was difficult for Barnhart. But now that she’s healthy and has started this season with three shutouts, her confidence is rising.

“I feel like I’m playing some of my best soccer I have over the years,” Barnhart said. “I feel physically really good. I feel like I’m moving better than I have over many years. To be able to go out and feel that good in games, I think it shows in the product as well.”

Barnhart has faced eight shots on goal this season and saved every one, giving her a save percentage of 100% — the best in the league. As a result, the Royals as a team have the most clean sheets in the league. Although the shutout statistic is credited to the goalkeeper, Utah’s collective pride in its staunch defense has helped.

“We do a great job defensively, which is enabling us to get those clean sheets,” Rodriguez said. “But that doesn’t minimize the work of our goalkeeper. Our goalkeeper still has to keep the ball out of the net as well.”

Barnhart is showing her team, the league and herself that she’s still got it.

“Right now, we’re seeing the best of Barnie,” Harvey said. “She’s been phenomenal for us and I hope it continues.”


At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy

Kickoff » Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MDT

Last meeting » URFC 2, Houston 1 (Aug. 5, 2018, BBVA Compass Stadium)

Records » URFC 3-0-0, Houston 2-1-1

About Houston » Dash won their only road game of season, 1-0 at Sky BlueFC on April 20. … Sit third in the NWSL standings. … Four different players have a goal. … Have conceded five goals on the season and scored only four. … Meleana Shim (left ankle), Veronica Latsko (left knee) and Taylor Comeau (right Arm) are out. … Kyah Simon (right Ankle), Christine Nairn (left Thigh) and Cece Kizer (right Leg) are questionable.

About URFC » Royals are the only team in the NWSL with no losses or ties. … Have won three consecutive games with a 1-0 scoreline. … Sydney Miramontez (right foot), Maddie Nolf (left hip) and Taylor Lytle (left foot) are out due to injury, while Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson are on International duty. … Becca Moros (left knee) is questionable.