Saturday will mark the historic season opener for the NWSL’s newest franchise - the Utah Royals. The team, owned and operated by Real Salt Lake, was established after the announcement that FC Kansas City would be disbanded. The franchise hired former Seattle Reign coach Laura Harvey, inherited Kansas City’s roster and immediately began making moves.
While the Royals’ home opener isn’t until April, the inaugural squad will take on the Orlando Pride Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. The team, which includes a healthy mix of international talent and domestic stars, would be looking to make a splash in a deep league. They have the talent and pieces to make a run and become the first expansion team to make the playoffs in their first year.
The club officially announced its inception in early December 2017. Before the end of the year, it had already completed a major trade with Sky Blue FC that led to the acquirement of US Women’s National Team defender Kelley O’Hara along with midfielder Taylor Lytle.
The first of the FCKC players to commit was USWNT co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Canadian international and midfielder Desiree Scott and USWNT forward Amy Rodriguez followed soon after along with midfielders Erika Tymrak and Mandy Laddish. The squad traded for fellow CanWNT player Diana Matheson from Harvey’s previous squad and signed Icelandic international Gunnhildur “Gunny” Jonsdottir.
The team signed more of the former Kansas City players including Lo’eau LaBonta, Alexa Newfield, Alex Arlitt, Maegan Kelly, Brittany Ratcliffe and veteran goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart. New Zealand forward Katie Bowen was also signed to the roster as well as defenders Becca Moros and Sydney Miramontez.
Harvey also added more international talent by adding Australian midfielder Katrina Gorry and Norwegian forward Elise Thorsnes. The team most recently picked up Scotland WNT captain Rachel Corsie who will be reunited with her former coach after being waived by Seattle in January.
Adding depth through the draft
The Boston Breakers announced in January that the team would be folding allowing its current roster to be picked up by the nine remaining teams via a dispersal draft. The players would not count against the current 20-player limit allowing each player to continue their careers and each team to pick up a player without sacrificing another spot.
The Royals drafted three players from Boston: goalkeeper Abby Smith, defender Brooke Elby and forward Katie Stengel. Stengel was previously with the Washington Spirit before she was waived and picked up by Boston. Smith spent the 2016 season injured but received several USWNT call-ups for her elite play in 2017.
Preseason finale predicts positive season
The Royals finished their preseason with a 4-1 win against the UCLA bruins. It was an improvement from their 1-0 victory against BYU. Ratcliffe, Matheson, Kelly and Tymrak all scored for the squad and Jonsdottir added an assist. In the first match, Newfield scored the lone goal.
The defense, allowing one goal in two matches, could prove to be the biggest strength of the team. Scott and LaBonta’s partnership in defensive midfield blossomed in 2017 with Kansas City and that chemistry could solidify in front of the backline of Corise, Sauerbrunn and O’Hara. Though the loss of NWSL iron woman Brittany Kolmel, who is taking the season off, and the delayed return of Arlitt who is recovering from injury, the defense still has veteran Barnhart and young talent Smith to provide the calming presence in goal.
The attack, however, will be one of the best. In addition to Rodriguez’s return from injury, the Royals will have strong and consistent forwards like Gorry, Kelly, Stengel and Bowen. Each player has the talent, commitment and skill to make the impact that this team needs to make a splash in 2018.
Record Prediction: 13-6-5 (Win-Draw-Loss)
Overall Placement: 3rd