It’s a whole new world for the Utah Royals FC.
The Royals started the 2020 preseason raring to go. Players came in fit. The new coach named a new captain. And there were plenty of new faces.
Just two days into camp, however, the COVID-19 pandemic halted any momentum that had been built. The Royals would have to wait to see whether all their offseason work and a fresh start of sorts would translate to the field.
But with the Royals starting their slate of games for the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup on Tuesday against the Houston Dash, they’ll get an opportunity to showcase where they fit in a monthlong tournament of which they are the host team.
Every team in the NWSL has to adjust to playing a summer tournament rather than a full 24-game season in 2020. But the Royals could have one of the most difficult roads due to how much things have changed since 2019.
For starters, star forward Christen Press chose not to participate in the tournament, citing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Press was one of several U.S. Women’s National Team players to opt out, while others won’t play due to injury.
“We will miss Christen’s presence at the tournament both on and off the field,” URFC general manager Stephanie Lee said in a statement. “Regardless, we respect her decision.”
Royals captain Amy Rodriguez told The Salt Lake Tribune that while not having Press is a blow to the team’s attack, she expects a group of players to contribute.
“It’s a great opportunity for a lot of players now to get minutes and play,” Rodriguez said. “I’m truly excited about this Royals roster. Although we will miss a big part in Christen not being here, we’re hopefully going to gain a lot more in several players stepping up.”
If the NWSL season doesn’t resume after the Challenge Cup — defender Rachel Corsie has already said it won’t — that mean’s Press’ season is done before it even began. And that’s not the only high-profile change for Utah.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn was traded to Portland in the offseason. That move left the Royals without a team captain who just so happened to arguably be the best defender in the NWSL.
Several other players left as well. Forward Katie Stengel and rookie Makenzy Doniak were both traded, and five others retired.
But the club added some youth by drafting Tziarra King eighth overall in the NWSL College Draft. Other additions such as Arielle Ship, Elizabeth Ball (via the Sauerbrunn trade), Taylor Leach and Aminata Diallo are all 27 years old or less.
Aside from a slew of new faces — nine in total — Utah brought in Craig Harrington as its new coach to replace Laura Harvey, who took a job with U.S. Soccer after two seasons with the club. It’s Harrington’s first hurrah as an NWSL head coach after being an assistant with the Chicago Red Stars for two seasons.
Harrington does have head coaching experience from his time at the Turks and Caicos Islands Football Association, where he also served as sporting director. But he’s been waiting for the opportunity to lead an NWSL team for some time, and said in February, when he took the Royals job, that he was ready.
Harrington will finally get to find out if he’s really ready come Tuesday. During the hiatus, he made sure he was as involved as possible with his new team, even in moments when players were taking the field for individual training sessions and he wasn’t allowed.
The England native will want to attempt, as much as possible, to implement a new style of play with a heightened focus on scoring goals, a point he’s repeated several times when describing his brand of soccer as “high octane.”
Not having Press for the tournament hurts that goal, but Rodriguez, King, Veronica Boquete and others will be there to help. And, Kelley O’Hara has experience playing in the attacking third of the field, so that could be an option for Harrington as well.
But there are plenty of questions for this Royals team. Can they score enough? Will Sauerbrunn’s absence on defense be insurmountable? Will Nicole Barnhart, 38, keep her starting job at goalkeeper? How competitive can they be against a league that has seemingly gotten better over the offseason?
Perhaps a summer tournament won’t answer all those questions. But it could be a good opportunity to start.