Real Salt Lake bringing National Women’s Soccer League franchise to Utah

Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen will announce Thursday that women’s professional soccer is coming to the Salt Lake Valley in the form of a National Women’s Soccer League team, The Salt Lake Tribune has learned.

Hansen has secured approval to launch an NWSL team, sources told The Tribune. Soccer magazine FourFourTwo reported, and a source confirmed to The Tribune, that FC Kansas City will cease operations next season. The new team will play at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Hansen has alluded to his interest in bringing an NWSL team to Utah for years. He plans to continue his focus on youth development, a source told The Tribune, and wants to launch a girls academy team.

The investment is in line with Hansen’s commitment to increasing Utah’s visibility within the world soccer scene. The Hansen-engineered Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman, which was estimated in September to cost $73 million, is scheduled to be completed for RSL’s winter preseason training. The campus includes training facilities for Real Salt Lake and United Soccer League affiliate Real Monarchs, plus an RSL youth academy. RSL also hosted world-class club Manchester United in a high-profile July friendly.

The NWSL is a 10-team league that this past season played 24 games in the regular season, running from mid-April through September. The Portland Thorns won the playoff championship with a 1-0 victory against North Carolina Courage. Kansas City, twice a league champion, finished seventh overall.

Houston, Portland and Seattle are the teams west of the Mississippi River in the NWSL. Portland is by far the most well-supported team in the league; the NWSL average attendance this season was 5,083, with Portland averaging more than 17,000 spectators.

The NWSL is the main residence for players on the United States women’s national team. Of the 23 players called up to the national team for two friendlies with Canada this month, 22 came from the NWSL, including stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.

The league has two players familiar to Utah soccer fans. Ashley Hatch, a former BYU star, was the Rookie of the Year this season for North Carolina. Kealia Ohai, a Draper native, is the captain of the Houston Dash and has played for the U.S. national team.

The league has seen financial troubles in the past and has been criticized for allegedly underpaying its players, but the NWSL — which completed its fifth season last month — has stayed afloat longer than any other top-tier professional women’s soccer league in the country.

The last premier women’s professional sports team in the Salt Lake City area was the Utah Starzz, a WNBA team that operated under the Utah Jazz ownership umbrella from 1997 to 2002 before the franchise relocated to San Antonio in 2003.