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Utah Royals FC Preview: Will Abby Smith be given another shot?

The Utah Royals FC narrowly missed the cusp of the NWSL Playoffs last season. This year, do the Royals have the talent to make the leap to qualify?
Abby Smith Utah Royals FC

Editorial (April 3, 2019) — The Utah Royals FC wasted no time in becoming a ninth team for the NWSL in 2018. With the folding of FC Kansas City, the Real Salt Lake ownership decided to craft a women’s club.

Bringing a large majority of former FC Kansas City players — plenty from the championship winning roster in 2014 and 2015 — the Royals looked to compete hard.

Utah Royals FC Preview: Will Abby Smith be given another shot?

There were also reinforcements from the NWSL Dispersal Draft. FC Kansas City wasn’t the only club to fold, with the Boston Breakers also following suit. Utah picked up goalkeeper Abby Smith, forward Katie Stengel, defender Brooke Elby and the rights to retired player Amanda DaCosta.

Utah had no problem making waves in the NWSL, completing few trades to bolster their roster and send players to new opportunities. Meanwhile, the Royals were also retaining a healthy Amy Rodriguez. And, who can forget the Christen Press drama that eventually led her to Utah.

However, the Royals finished on the cusp of the playoffs. In the NWSL, only four teams make the league’s playoffs. In the club’s inaugural season, the Royals finished in fifth place, tallying 35 points. Utah was only two points away from tying with fourth-place club, Chicago.

The Royals finished with a 9-10-5 record. This year, the Royals have added some new faces and are competing in their second year under Laura Harvey. Here are three big questions for the Royals in 2019.

Will Abby Smith be given a second chance?

For the first 16 matches of the regular-season, Abby Smith was given the starting goalkeeper role. Coming to the Royals from the Boston Breakers, Smith won the starting job over Nicole Barnhart, the former FC Kansas City goalkeeper.

However, Smith struggled in the first slate of matches. She recorded only one shutout in the first five matches. The sixth match of Utah’s regular-season saw the team earn their first NWSL victory. Utah had a rollercoaster season after those matches. At times, Utah looked like the team to beat, even handing the North Carolina Courage their only loss of the season on June 16, a match that Smith featured.

The rollercoaster finally became too much for Laura Harvey. She made personnel switches on defense and offense, but decided to remove Smith from goal. In the months of August and September, she made only one appearance.

Meanwhile, Barnhart took over and performed admirably. She started seven matches, recording three shut outs and helping the Royals earn four wins, two draws and one loss. Barnhart finished the season with 15 saves. Meanwhile, Smith tallied 31 saves.

This off-season, Harvey has been alternating starts and minutes for the Royals. There’s no clear-cut starting goalkeeper named for the April 20 — with nine teams in NWSL, one team takes a bye week each week and for the opening weekend, it’s Utah — contest against Washington.

What can Christen Press do with a full season?

Last year, it was a rollercoaster to get Christen Press to Utah.

When she was traded from the Chicago Red Stars to the Houston Dash, Press refused to attend camp. Instead, she decided to sign with Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC in Sweden, making eight appearances and scoring four goals. However, in June, Press landed in Utah after the Royals and Dash traded for her rights.

In 11 matches, Press found the back of the net only twice.

This season, Press won’t be spending any time in Europe — unless it’s competing with the U.S. Women’s National Team for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. She’ll begin the season with the Utah Royals and after last year’s extremely close push to the playoffs, she’ll want to score more goals.

Press will also want to look good, in hopes for a starting spot for the USWNT.

With a whole season for Utah coming up, Press has a real ability to give opposing defenders a hard time. The competition in the NWSL has risen tremendously. You’re not seeing national team players get easy goals and easy touches. However, Press has a finesse that most players don’t have. She could have a double-digit scoring season.

Does Amy Rodriguez still has the power to be a leading scorer?

Amy Rodriguez had a wild three years.

In 2016, she missed the NWSL season due to her pregnancy and birth of her second son. In anticipation for a comeback season in 2017, Rodriguez only featured in one match and tore her ACL. That comeback season was on hold for another year and in 2018, Rodriguez found out she wouldn’t be residing in Kansas anymore.

Packing up her family and traveling to Utah, Rodriguez’ comeback season was going to have a different spin to it. No longer was she playing in the state she spent four season and won two titles. Now, the 32-year-old was reunited with her teammates, but in a whole new environment.

However, that new environment didn’t diminish Rodriguez.

She scored five goals in 19 matches for the Utah Royals. Now, that’s not Sam Kerr or Alex Morgan numbers, but it’s still positive for the Royals. Coming off missing two season and more recently, an ACL tear, Rodriguez performed admirably.

Now, she needs to find a good partnership with Christen Press. If the two can get on the same page under Laura Harvey, they could be one of the best attacking combinations in the NWSL. Neither player are getting any younger — Press is 30 — but still have a lot to give for their team.

Last Word: Utah takes the big leap to second

The Royals have a lot of their roster returning.

If the club can figure out the goalkeeper situation early, then there is a big chance for success. Smith has the talent to be a starter, but if she can’t get her matches under control then she needs to hit the bench sooner than 16 games in.

Utah has the potential to go all the way and even give the North Carolina Courage another run for their money in 2019.

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