Laura Harvey groaned in agony every time the van hit a bump, the bandage wrapped around her knee doing nothing to dull the pain.
“You’ve got to stop,” Harvey pleaded with Birmingham City L.F.C.’s pseudo-trainer as he rushed her to the hospital.
The Warwickshire, England, native, wouldn’t find out until two weeks later when they removed her hip-to-ankle plaster cast that along with dislocating her kneecap, she also had ruptured her ACL, she said. The injury launched Harvey into a club coaching career at just 22 years old. The foundations for her coaching style — one with an emphasis on connecting with players — can be traced back to her early start on the coaching track.
Harvey, who Utah Royals FC hired as its first coach, is the only coach to win two NWSL Coach of the Year awards. She led Seattle Reign FC to two NWSL Shields and her 51-33-26 all-time regular-season record over five years is second-best in the league.
But Harvey pulled humor out of even a conversation about those accomplishments while sitting in a Utah coffee shop last week. In her thick British accent, she dived into the story of how the Reign’s 16-game unbeaten streak in 2014 left her sweating in Chicago summer heat wearing long pants, a jacket and a rain coat. She’s so superstitious that she hadn’t changed her game day outfit since the streak started. It was comfortable in April. In July? Not so much.
“Something that I often say about Harv,” said Mariah Bullock, who played for the Reign in 2014 and 2015, “is that she, better than any coach that I’ve ever seen, balances respect and discipline with fun and genuine care and compassion for her players.”
Harvey realized her playing career was over back in 2002. A drawn-out diagnosis and months of grueling physical therapy for an injury she sustained during a warmup game did the trick.
“I might be able to make a career out of coaching,” she remembers thinking. “But if I go back and play again and I hurt it even more then I might not even be able to do that.
Harvey had been making her rounds training kids at primary and secondary schools for about five years at that point. She racked up stories like the time the students locked her in the sports hall and the time they bounced her car against a wall.
When Harvey suffered her career-ending knee injury while playing for Birmingham, the club brought her on as an assistant coach. She was promoted to coach five years later.
She was around the same age, or younger than, most of her players, and many of them were former teammates.
“At that age, I sort of went through a period where everyone was telling me that I had to change who I was to be successful as a coach,” Harvey said.
She listened at first and tried to adjust accordingly, but Harvey said she dropped the act when Arsenal L.F.C. hired her as an assistant coach in 2008. Now when she’s asked for her advice to young coaches, her response always is the same: be yourself.
“Because that was what changed me from being just an average coach, I would say, to actually being someone that people respected and listened to,” she said. “If you’re not you, they know you’re fake. And if you’re fake, they don’t listen.”
Arsenal promoted Harvey to first team manager midway through the next season after a brief stint as the assistant academy director and reserves manager.
Arsenal won one FA Women’s Premier League Championship, two FA Women’s Super League Championships, two FA WSL Continental Cups and one FA Women’s Cup over the next two and a half seasons. Harvey’s Gunners became the first British club to beat a German opponent when they defeated FFC Turbine Potsdam in the 2012 Champions League last 16.
It seemed as if being herself also was a recipe for winning.
Then the NWSL came calling, and Harvey proved that her coaching style could work on the other side of the pond.
“I was sort of ready for a change,” Harvey said. “I probably just didn’t realize it, I think.”
That was why, with almost all her knowledge of Seattle coming from one sleepless night of watching Grey’s Anatomy, Harvey accepted the Reign coaching job. She picked up her life and moved it the United States for the league’s inaugural season.
“I think that she’s been true to herself,” said U-15 U.S. Girls National Team coach Tracey Kevins, who has known Harvey since the late 2000s and served as a Reign assistant coach and academy technical director for a little more than a year. “I think that the American game historically has not been a possession game. It’s been a transitional game, it’s been a, at times, quite direct game. So in other words, the ball would end up in the opposite penalty area multiple times, and I think what she did during the course of [her time in] Seattle was to say, ‘No, this is how we’re playing.’”
After a disappointing 2013 season with Seattle, in which the team began the season 0-9-1 and finished seventh in the eight-team league, the Reign won two straight NWSL shields.
“For me, she’s the best player manager I’ve ever worked alongside,” Kevins said. “I’ve been fortunate to work with some very high-profile coaches, and her player management is exceptional. And it’s something that you have to be in it to sort of see it and understand it, but it’s really the time that she invests in getting to know the individual player as a person.”
Harvey kept the atmosphere light by blasting music in the locker room or starting a keep-away game with a full volley. But at the same time she inspired respect from her players.
Bullock still remembers Harvey taking her aside a couple days before a game she expected to start and explaining why she had decided to go with someone else.
“She didn’t need to do that, right?” Bullock said. “I’ve played for coaches that make decisions, and they don’t owe you anything. But she put the extra effort into making sure that I felt like a key part of the team and that I had a role, and that I wasn’t replaceable.”
Harvey, 37, is no longer the same age as most of her players at this point in her career. It’s the most evident in the rookies, who play music in the locker room that Harvey deems “terrible.”
“I can feel the gap starting to get bigger,” she said. “So I’m clinging on for dear life.”
But the way Harvey relates to and builds trust with her players has remained constant. Now she’s bringing that to Utah.
LAURA HARVEY RESUME
2015 NWSL Coach of the Year
2014 NWSL Coach of the Year
2011 Women’s Super League Coach of the Season
2015 Seattle Reign • NWSL Shield
2014 Seattle Reign • NWSL Shield
2012 Arsenal • FA Women’s Super League Champions, FA WSL Continental Cup
2011 Arsenal • FA Women’s Cup, FA Women’s Super League Champions, FA WSL Continental Cup
2010 Arsenal • FA Women’s Premier League Champions