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July 25, 2021

What comes next for Utah Royals FC after 2-0 loss to OL Reign, winless NWSL fall series?

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Royals FC ended the four-match NWSL falls series in much the same way they began it: without a win.

Sofia Huerta and Leah Pruitt each scored a goal to lead OL Reign past Utah Royals FC 2-0 Saturday night at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, Washington, leaving the Royals winless in four matches in the NWSL fall series.

The Reign closed out 2020 with their first victory since July. Utah finishes the year winless since a 1-0 victory over New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC on July 4, their only win in five matches of the mid-summer closed bubble tournament.

It’s been a tough fall for Utah, and not just because of what happened on the pitch.

“Our team went through a lot in the last month. More than our team should go through,” Royals captain Amy Rodriguez said. “We had a lot of weight on our shoulders. We came together as a team … and what came through this last month was that, having to lean on each other.

“We hope to build that into our 2021 season and use that as momentum.”

Huerta gave the hosts an early advantage in the 24th minute, finishing a buildup through Shirley Cruz with a shot through goalkeeper Abby Smith’s legs to go up 1-0, and Pruitt doubled the advantage five minutes after the break to give the Reign all they needed.

OL Reign out-shot the Royals 23-10 in the match, and in many ways, Utah was lucky to only be down a goal at the break. Huerta nearly had a brace before halftime, and Utah managed just two chances on frame — one from Brittany Ratcliffe and another from fullback Mallory Weber — before the halftime whistle.

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Michele Murphy Vasconcelos made her Royals debut in the 66th minute, replacing Ratcliffe as a second-half sub. And Utah found more offense with the fresh legs and flair of the former BYU standout and Alta High product.

Tziarra King had a right-footed shot from distance saved a few moments later. Rodriguez added a chance in the 81st minute, and Vasconcelos even tested Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy with a right-footed shot from just right of the box, as well.

“I thought Michele came in and lifted the group,” Royals interim head coach Amy LePeilbet said. “Defensively, she was getting after it. More importantly, she took care of the ball, was creative in the attack, and she absolutely helped us that last bit.”

The debut was a long time coming for Vasconcelos, who signed with the club just before head coach Craig Harrington was placed on administrative leave.

“I feel like I came, and everything changed,” she said. “So I just tried to work hard at practice, and I just tried to work hard in practice and show what I could do in a game.”

It wasn’t much, and — by Vasconcelos’ own admission, not enough, considering the loss — the Royals finished the fall series with an 0-2-2 record, dead last in the nine-team standings. But there were moments on which to build for the third-year franchise that experienced a wild 2020 season, between the pandemic, the Herriman-hosted Challenge Cup, and a coaching change the week of the club’s first match in the fall.

“Just with all the chaos going on in the organization, I’ve been really impressed with the girls,” Vasconcelos said. “I think the biggest thing is if we can bring this same group back next year and clean up the soccer a bit, we’re going to be very good.”

On the field, there was as much change. Becky Sauerbrunn was traded to Portland near the end of the offseason, Christen Press opted out of the year before signing with Manchester United in the FA WSL in England, and Kelley O’Hara played sparingly in the Challenge Cup before opting out of the fall series. Harrington experimented with a three-back formation, but interim manager LePeilbet reversed course and played a more traditional 4-3-3 lineup during her time as caretaker.

“I think these four games have been the most important four games of the year,” said Utah center back Taylor Leach, who started Saturday. “With the Challenge Cup, we had someone else in charge and we’re playing a different formation. Now we’re playing a four-back, and that requires different personnel … and people are playing the position they are used to. I think these four games in the fall series is about getting that cohesion back together.

“It was a learning experience, and I think the fall series was about getting that all back.”

Next, the Royals turn toward 2021 and the chance to start anew. That will come with a new owner, as Dell Loy Hansen has already announced his intentions to sell the club, and could come with a new coach — or at least, a shakeup in the coaching ranks with Harrington’s situation.

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The ownership change should give the Royals a chance at a “fresh start,” Rodriguez said — and that, perhaps, is the most important piece of the offseason to figure out.

“I think we’re looking forward to a revamp, a redo, a refresh,” the former U.S. international said. “I know personally, I have a lot of things to work on in the offseason — things I didn’t get to work on due to coronavirus and a fractured season. I know every single play in our locker room wants to get better.”

There will also be a 10th team in the NWSL, and Racing Louisville FC will begin to build its roster through an expansion draft Thursday, Nov. 12. Whether any players from Utah’s current roster will take part in the new Kentucky side won’t be known until then — but it stands to reason that the Royals will lose somebody from this year’s squad. Protected player lists are due Nov. 5 to the league office.

“Going into 2021, I hope we at least have a full season,” LePeilbet said. “That alone would be the most exciting thing to look forward to. The Challenge Cup was fantastic, but it’s not the same as having a full season.

“We really need a full preseason to put together our style, get the team on the same page, and roll forward through the full season.”

Next up

The NWSL expansion draft for Racing Louisville FC will be held Thursday, Nov. 12. The first trade window of the 2021 season opens the next day, Nov. 13.

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Sean Walker

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