Herriman • The Utah Royals FC lost more than just a two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist when it traded defender Becky Sauerbrunn for allocation money and a Portland Thorns defender. It also lost its captain, its defensive anchor and one of the younger players’ strongest mentors.
But as the Royals opened training camp Monday for the upcoming 2020 season, there was optimism about the fresh start available to them despite no longer having arguably their best player from last season.
“I was obviously devastated with the news that Becky had left us,” said forward Amy Rodriguez, who was named team captain Monday. “She will leave a very large hole here. Thankfully, [coach] Craig [Harrington] and the team has a plan to fill that hole.”
Rodriguez said Harrington asked her to captain the team during their first sit-down meeting together before training camp started. Harrington said it was “very easy” choosing her for that role.
“I think Amy embodies everything that I want this team to be just from a purely non-skill part,” said Harrington, who begins his first season as URFC’s coach. “And then when you add actually how good of a soccer player she is — which I think is massively underrated on her — but if you put the work rate, you put that drive, you put that enthusiasm, you put that lion mentality out on the field, plus the quality that she has, to be me it’s a no-brainer.”
As the reigning Defender of the Year for the National Women’s Soccer League, Sauerbrunn was expected to stop goals for the Royals. Defense was the club’s identity for the past two seasons, during which Utah did not make the playoffs.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, is expected to score goals as a forward. She led Utah with nine goals in 2019, winning the team’s Golden Boot award. Her shift to captain in place of Sauerbrunn feels indicative of Harrington’s team-wide philosophy: score goals.
When asked how Sauerbrunn’s departure changes Utah’s dynamic on defense, he said nothing has changed on that end. He did acknowledge, however, that he expects balance on both sides of the field.
“I think from Day 1, I haven’t really spoken about the defense,” Harrison said. “If you listened, it’s been about us being high octane. We want to cause teams problems, and that involves us with the ball. So if you have the ball, then it’s kind of like chess, isn’t it? Attack is the best type of defense.”
Sauerbrunn wasn’t the only player to leave the Royals in the offseason. Midfielders Mandy Laddish and Erika Tymrak retired. Defender Sydney Miramontez retired. Becca Moros was waived. Makenzy Doniak and Katie Stengel were traded for draft picks.
With all that turnover, the Royals enter the franchise’s third NWSL season with something of a clean slate. Midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta said the team addressed the departures before preseason started and immediately moved on.
“I think it's good because we’re not going to fall back on any new plans,” LaBonta said. “We’re going to create our own new plan for this upcoming season. Obviously it hurts your friendships when you lose your buddies and stuff. But other than that, at the end of the day we’re all competitors. This is our job and we’re going to do our best with what we have.”
Utah is missing a slew of federation players for the start of preseason, including Christen Press, Kelley O’Hara, Katie Bowen, Rachel Corsie, Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson. But Harrington suggested he has a good sense of what his full roster can bring.
“I’m just excited to have all of them,” Harrington said. “It’s like Christmas Day, but I know all the presents I’ve got — some I don’t [have yet]. I’m happy that they’re all there under the tree.”
The Royals have had high expectations for themselves since they entered the league. They want to win the NWSL championship and be a perennial playoff team.
“We had an identity these last two years and it didn’t work for us,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously we didn’t win. We didn’t even make playoffs. So with a bunch of new faces and a new identity, hopefully comes playoff berths and comes championships. That’s what we want to be known as and we’re set to do that this year.”