Royals come out of the international break with playoff race already heating up

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals host Orlando Pride at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Wednesday May 9, 2018. Orlando Pride defender Monica Hickmann Alves (21), Utah Royals FC defender Brooke Elby (13), and Utah Royals FC midfielder Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir (23).

If Utah Royals coach Laura Harvey knew before launching a new NWSL team that her squad would reach the international break with two losses, she would have been thrilled.

“I think anyone would,” Harvey said after practice Tuesday. “I think that the disappointing thing is that we haven’t really played at a level that we think we are capable of. So that’s something that drives us every day, which actually is a nice thing.”

About halfway through the season, the Royals (3-2-5, 10 points) are sixth in the league. Even with the growing pains at the beginning of the season, they’ve established themselves as one of the best defensive teams in the league. Now Utah has to start scoring more goals.

“It’s been a huge reflecting period,” defender Brooke Elby said of the time off. “... And honestly it’s been a great progression. We are a new team under a new coach and in a new organization. So you’ve got to figure out the kinks in the beginning, and I think we’ve done that. I finally think we’re getting an identity as a team.”

The Royals are tied with Seattle for the fewest goals conceded in the league (eight). However, after scoring nine goals in 10 games, winless Sky Blue FC is the only team that has scored fewer times (six goals).

The top four teams in the league qualify for playoffs. Undefeated North Carolina (9-0-3, 30 points) is a clear powerhouse, but No. 2 through 7 in the standings are within four points of each other.


“Things can go either way with this league, I think it’s really competitive,” forward Katie Stengel said. “So it’s always good to have a pretty good start, and I think we’re in the running. Maybe not where we want to be, but we’re in a decent spot right now.”

Harvey’s approach, however, is to count points. In her five previous years in the league she’s come to understand if a team wins its home games and takes 12 points in 12 road games, it’s pretty much guaranteed a playoff spot.

The Royals had a promising May homestand, going undefeated and collecting eight points in four games. However, their following two-game road trip was streaky, with a 2-0 loss at Portland and a 2-1 win at Sky Blue FC. Harvey said she was pleased with the way the team responded to the loss in Portland, with a first-half performance in New Jersey that she described as their best on the road.

“I think a little shift in mentality this week after the break,” Harvey said of what she wanted to see next, “of holding each other really accountable in everything that we do.”

O’Hara still on the mend

Kelley O’Hara is expected to remain out with a hamstring injury for at least a few more weeks, with her earliest return sometime in July, Harvey said.

“We want to make sure when we bring her back, we’re bringing her back and she’s fully OK,” Harvey said, “not that we’re making over something and just getting her through the season.”

O’Hara has been dealing with a hamstring injury most of the season. She has been out for over a month after re-injuring her right hamstring in the Royals’ scoreless tie with Orlando on May 9.

Harvey said as she understands it — “I’m no medical person so I don’t tend to get into the weeds on that stuff” — it’s not exclusively a muscular injury.

Returning internationals

The nine Royals players away on international duty are scheduled to return to Utah Wednesday. The Royals plan to put them through a light practice Thursday before heading to North Carolina for Saturday’s match. Harvey said Tuesday that she is hopeful all nine — Becky Sauerbrunn (USA), Amy Rodriguez (USA), Abby Smith (USA), Desiree Scott (Canada), Diana Matheson (Canada), Elise Thorsnes (Norway), Rachel Corsie (Scotland), Gunnhildur Jonsdottir (Iceland) and Katie Bowen (New Zealand) — will be available this weekend.