Utah Royals get true test of youth movement as they begin NWSL Fall Series

Michael Mangum | Special to the Tribune Houston Dash defender Allysha Chapman (2) slides to tackle Utah Royals FC forward Tziarra King (3) during their match at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, UT on Friday, July 17, 2020.

Utah Royals FC has transformed from what it was when it first arrived to Utah in 2018.

The team had three current U.S. Women’s National Team stars in Becky Sauerbrunn, Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara. It had Amy Rodriguez, a former USWNT staple in her own right. It had a highly respected coach in Laura Harvey.

But the roster skewed toward veteran players who were heading toward the latter portions of their careers. Two seasons of missing the playoffs coincided with many veterans retiring, asking to get traded or signing elsewhere.

What’s left is a group of young players looking to make their mark in the league, and they’ll get the prime opportunity to do so when the Royals start their run of four games Sunday in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Fall Series.

The Royals are still buoyed by Rodriguez, who became captain of the team after Sauerbrunn’s trade to the Portland Thorns. Sharing the pitch with her, however, are a slew of younger faces, including a couple that are returning from injuries.

Tziarra King got some attention for being the eighth pick in the 2020 NWSL College Draft and especially when she scored a goal in the Challenge Cup opener. She didn’t play much after that, but should get more looks in this next restart considering what she has proven she can bring the field.

Other young players who showed out in the Challenge Cup were defenders Kate Del Fava and Elizabeth Ball. Del Fava, a rookie, was somewhat thrown in to the back line and held her own. Ball, who came to the Royals in the Sauerbrunn deal, was one of the most used players in terms of minutes during that tournament.


When • Sunday, 3 p.m. MDT

With defender Rachel Corsie on loan with Birmingham City, center back Gaby Vincent would be a natural fit in that position. And if coach Craig Harrington decides to experiment further with formations and go with four defenders in the back — he went with a 3-5-2 in the Challenge Cup — he has several younger players from which to choose.

Between the end of this summer’s Challenge Cup and now, the Royals lineup went through some upheaval. Press left for Manchester United and Utah native Michele Vasconcelos joined the team via trade. Harrington said recently, however, that it’s unclear how much Vasconcelos will contribute in the Fall Series because she recently recovered from an ACL injury. She said she expects to play.

O’Hara was rumored to be on the move to the Washington Spirit, but that deal never materialized. She decided shortly after to opt out of the Fall Series altogether.

Also opting out of the next four games are Canadian players Desiree Scott and Diana Matheson, both of whom are still on Utah’s roster. Scott did not play in the Challenge Cup either.

Those four players alone — Press, O’Hara, Scott and Matheson — represent some of Utah’s most talented and experienced footballers on the team. But they’re not the only veterans who won’t feature for the Royals for the Fall Series.

Corsie and Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir both went on loan to European teams for the next several months. Jónsdóttir joined Úrvalsdeild kvenna in Iceland. Corsie, who signed a two-year extension with the Royals, will also play for the Scottish national team beginning in October.

Abby Smith spent most of the Challenge Cup defending the goal in place of veteran Nicole Barnhart. With Barnhart out for Sunday’s road game against Portland with a left Achilles injury, Smith should get the nod at goal again, and possibly for the foreseeable future.