Utah Royals FC provided a glimpse into just how different it will look for the the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, and potentially beyond, in Tuesday’s draw to the Houston Dash.
The change came by way of the team’s formation. Last season under Laura Harvey, the Royals played a 4-4-2 with a diamond in the midfield. It was just one way Harvey instilled her defensive philosophy.
But new coach Craig Harrington opted to play three defenders in the back line in a 3-5-2 formation. He likes that way of playing because it allows him to have more players in the middle of the field, forcing a defense to cover a wider area of the field.
Plus, the formation coincides with Harrington’s offensive principles.
“That allows you to play two center forwards,” Harrington said. “If you look historically at this league, two center forwards have done extremely well. So that’s something that I want to do. With the personnel we have, I think it suits their strengths.”
The center forwards he used against the Dash were captain Amy Rodriguez and Brittany Ratcliffe, who returned after missing all last season with an ACL tear. Ratcliffe presumably replaced Christen Press, who opted out of playing in the Challenge Cup.
Despite being without one of the best goal scorers in the world in Press, the Royals still managed to score multiple goals. They put away three, which happened in back-to-back games in August last season. But for much of 2019, they struggled to score.
Utah wants to find scoring by committee this season, and it happened against Houston. Three different players — Diana Matheson, Veronica Boquete and Tziarra King — put away goals. And that outcome fits right into Harrington’s philosophy.
ROYALS FC VS. SKY BLUE FC
At Zions Bank Stadium
When • Saturday, 10:30 a.m.
Live stream • CBS All-Access
“I’ve said it all along that we want to be playing attacking minded,” Harrington said. “So playing four, five at the back doesn’t necessarily do that for me. I want to get numbers up the field and give [Rodriguez] a partner that she can play off and for [Boquete] to get combination underneath. I wanted to make sure we had numbers in the midfield to try and dominate the ball.”
One other change was at the goalkeeper position. Abby Smith started at keeper against Houston in place of the veteran Nicole Barnhart.
Smith gave up three goals to the Dash — not the most ideal stat for a player in that position. Harrington said there was one goal that Smith couldn’t help, but he would have to watch film to see what happened on the other two.
Nonetheless, he was pleased with Smith.
“It was fantastic,” Harrington said of Smith’s performance. “Abby managed the game really well.”
With just four days between matches in the tournament, Utah’s lineup is likely to change often, and perhaps even dramatically. King played four only about 10 total minutes, but Harrington said she was tired after the game.
Injuries to Kelley O’Hara and Mallory Weber, along with Desiree Scott leaving the tournament to attend to a personal matter, will also play a part in game day lineups throughout the month.
“I think the starting group with a few of the injuries that came up during the week it was kind of all hands on, pump and react to what was happening,” Harrington said.
But Harrington, in his first game as an NWSL head coach, gave the league something to think about. Now he just needs that first win.