University of Utah women’s soccer will open the season at Clemson and Alabama

(Photo courtesy of Steve C. Wilson/ University of Utah) Ireland Dunn, shown playing in a 2018 game, is one of Utah's top returning players in 2019.

Rich Manning gives away the ending every time he tells the story of the reactions of people who learn about Utah's season-opening schedule, visiting Clemson and Alabama this week.

“Some people that aren't soccer fans are like, 'Oh, wow. You're going for the top,' ” said Manning, who's entering his 18th season as the Ute women's soccer coach.

Informed of the soccer team's plans, Ute football coach Kyle Whittingham said, “That is very impressive.”

The disclaimer: In this version of football, Clemson and Alabama are not ranked 1-2 in the country. Clemson is picked fifth in the 14-team Atlantic Coast Conference; Alabama is forecasted ninth in the 14-team Southeastern Conference.

So the Utes are not being nearly as ambitious as the brand-name opponent make them appear. Yet, the Thursday-Sunday opening sequence reflects shrewd strategy for a program that played well enough in the Pac-12 to make the NCAA Tournament field last season, but lacked credentials outside the conference. And the Tigers and Crimson Tide each agreed to a home-and-home series with Utah.

“Those are big-name schools,” said Ute goalkeeper Carly Nelson. “I think we're all excited to go out there and play against those big names in the ACC [and SEC].”

The Utes had to play somewhere this week, other than on their own campus. Construction delays have prevented the team from practicing in the new soccer/lacrosse stadium. Tuesday is the target date for the Utes to get on the field, in advance of the Aug. 30 home opener vs. Utah State.

“We were absolutely challenged by the winter,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said on his monthly podcast. “We're on schedule to be ready by that night.”

In separate interviews, Manning and Nelson each responded with a wry smile when asked about practicing in August. The Utes have trained at both the school's baseball practice field (not really big enough for soccer) and the Salt Lake City Regional Athletic Complex, 10 miles from the campus, requiring carpooling among the players.

“The way I look at it, I think it's honestly just a good adventure and an adjustment,” Nelson said.

“We've talked about not trying to get stressed or distracted about it,” Manning said, “not trying to ask for a daily update on the [stadium]. I think we've done a pretty good job. That stuff doesn't matter at the end of the day, if you don't let it matter.”

The Utes just hope they're prepared to begin the 2019 season better than their 3-6-1 launch of last year. They finished 9-8-2, including a 6-4-1 conference mark that was good for fourth place in the Pac-12. That finish in the conference historically merited an NCAA bid, but the Utes knew they needed a better start.

That's their focus in 2019, when Manning is having to replace top goal-scorers Hailey Skolomoski and Paola van der Veen. Utah has only two returning players who scored more than one goal, Ireland Dunn (four) and Makayla Christensen (three). Yet Manning believes that with the return of some players who were injured last season, intrasquad competition has helped Utah's offensive players develop.

Utah is picked eighth in the Pac-12. The conference lists No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 UCLA and No. 5 USC in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25.

Clemson is tops among other teams receiving votes, outside the Top 25.