Seventh is not a good feeling. The five point gap, six points if you take the Reign FC owning the tie break in to account, between the Royals and any hope of the post season feels as wide and deep as the Grand Canyon.
Every team has gut check moments in a season, those moments when finding a way to gather any points, any small victory, can snowball and propel them forward. Those moments when the team steps off the cliff and either flies forward and fails and crashes back down to the ground.
Chicago was a gut check moment. Utah didn’t pass.
It happens. Teams face a dozen or more gut checks a year. Sometimes, they face more than one in a single game. You win some, and you lose some, and sometimes it’s a draw.
Before we get too deep in the weeds, let’s hit the declarations.
Let’s begin, shall we?
The Yanks marching in and out
Utah’s has a B roster with a few A-level players on it. Christen Press, Kelley O’Hara, and Becky Sauerbrunn are all on that level. Each is World Class, with the hardware at home to back it up.
Sauerbrunn is the leader of whatever backline she is on. She and Nicole Barnhart have been together every year they have been in the NWSL together. She is the biggest safety net a defender can be. Utah’s defense largely hasn’t been the issue for the club this year, but having our captain coming in and out of the locker room, your backline is going to throw off a bit of the chemistry and unsettle things a bit.
And well, a healthier Kelley O’Hara being around is always going to provide a spark to both the offense and the defensive toughness of any team she’s on. She is, and I can’t stress this is when she is healthy enough, a key to the Utah attack. When she is on her game, she is able to go into open space and put in pin-point crosses. But she is back on the questionable list for the injury report after a stint with the USWNT.
Christen Press is no less the best player on the Utah roster. She is their best attacker and one of the very smartest players in terms of scoring. But she can take a game or two to get back in rhythm, even with two wonderful goals in her first two games back notwithstanding.
The problem with these three is they just aren’t there for most of the season. And when they finally came in, they were heading right back out again. This is hard on any team and a team that needs these three as much as this roster does, and Vero and Desiree Scott and all the players that for one reason or another have been in and out this year.
Should Laura Harvey be fired?
The last time Laura Harvey took a team to the playoffs was way back in 2015, when Barack Obama was the President, the Reign FC played in Seattle, and the northeast had three NWSL teams.
Utah missed the playoffs by a narrow margin in 2018 and looks on pass to miss it again in 2019.
How much of this should fall on Laura Harvey? Some of it? All of it?
The 2017 FC Kansas City team largely became the 2018 Utah Royals. In 2017, FCKC finished seven out of ten with 31 points and a goal differential of -2. Sounds shockingly like the current Utah even with a few parts switched out.
Does that mean Harvey should have done more to change the team around? Yes, she and the general manager, whatever that means in the NWSL, Stephanie Lee should have been more aggressive. They should have seen that having a bunch of World Cup players is great in a bubble, but it’s a killer when those players will be gone for large bits of the season and have to reintegrate. They should have known having so many defensive-minded key players would lead to not a great time being had by all.
But should that get Harvey fired?
And no for maybe not the best set of reasons, but no none the less. Say Utah goes ahead and fires Harvey. What next? Someone has to coach the team either this year or next. And in the NWSL, there is a shockingly small pool of people who want the job or can be hired for a head coaching job. Most stay in college where the positions are more stable and the pay is better. Sometimes it’s better to dance with the English coach you know than the (presumably) English coach you don’t.
Give Harvey one more year, if the USWNT team doesn’t take her first, and see if losing some players to a possible expansion doesn’t jump start the team.
Where is the attack?
You can count the names of the healthy attacking-minded Utah Royals players on fewer fingers than a top rated NWSL should be counting on.
You can’t count Kelley O’Hara as she has to play some defense on the backline, nor do you know if she’s going to play any more games this year with her ankle. Katie Bowen is in the same boat of having to think about defense, too. Gunny Jonsdottir, Mandy Laddish, Desiree Scott, even Lo’eau LaBonta, have a habit of slipping into defensive-minded play more often than attacking.
Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez, Erika Tymrak, Katie Stengel, Vero Boquete. That is really the list of attack first, attack second, and think of defense as a distinct third option players. And that is just frankly not enough in terms of who would be on the field at any given moment. Press, Rodriguez, and Vero being together is a good start, but they need a center midfield behind Vero who thinks of the attack, too. Something they don’t have.
If this team is going to get better, and they have good bones to build on, they have to put a focus in finding legit attacking talent who don’t all turn in to holding midfielders when the ball isn’t at their feet.
The Most Noble Order of the Lioness
And now for that most special time were we must speak of the nominations for The Most Noble Order of the Lioness.
I’ve spent a long time picking out who is going to. It was a hard match to pull anyone, but at the end of the day someone must be chosen.
This week the honor of nomination goes to Desiree Scott for general badassery, and the ability to do her job well.
And with that nomination, Desiree Scott joins Christen Press, Nicole Barnhart , Vero Boquete, and Sam Johnson as Companions of the Most Noble Order of the Lioness.
Amy Rodriguez and Rachel Corsie need one more nomination to officially join the order.
Please join us Wednesday as the Utah Royals FC take on Sky Blue FC. The last time the two squared off Sky Blue FC got all three points.