Utah has a way around them this season that has been as frustrating as it’s been consistent. They take two steps forward, and then take one step back.
This week we saw that frustrating take on the purest form.
Lose to Houston.
They beat - at the time at least - the best team in the league, only to drop all three points to a team that has spent most of the season in the bottom third. Have a match that shows fire, passion from the players against a team that you can’t toss a soccer ball without hitting a player with national team cred and then lose to a team that had been struggling for the last month against top teams.
Utah is a team of contradictions. High highs and low lows and a delightful mix of aggression one moment while being lackadaisical the next. It’s a team that welcomes you in, and then tells you to take out the garbage and clean the garage before you can sit down for the homemade dinner they made you.
Let’s begin, shall we?
The O’Hara conundrum
Kelley O’Hara is an exceptional soccer player. I am not going to spend the time listing all of the reasons why. There is Wikipedia for that. But with only 242 minutes this year, that spark O’Hara can bring is extinguished.
I’m not blaming O’Hara for being hurt, or the Utah medical staff for not finding a way to patch her up enough to get her on the field. I’m not even blaming the USWNT or the Victory Tour for added minutes on injured body parts. Blame isn’t the issue here, but we still have a conundrum.
If O’Hara can’t find herself on the pitch, is having a World Class - and allocated player which costs the team very little - worth having? If we look to 2018, O’Hara logged just 517 over 8 matches. There was a time - back in her Sky Blue FC days - when O’Hara was healthy and seeing the field week in and week out. In 2017, she saw the pitch in 18 matches and played 1,561 minutes.
Watching Utah play against Portland, and then again against Houston, there was a decided lack of bite from the back and the flank. Katie Bowen and Mallory Weber have been fine this year, but the style and flair that O’Hara plays with when she is in the game is unique and deadly. Not to mention O’Hara and Press often link up in ways that only players who have 12 or so years of playing together under their belts can. The Stanford connection is strong there.
If O’Hara can’t get on the pitch by the end of the season and regularly in 2020, options for trades or replacements might have to be floated. Utah can’t afford to be a playmaker down. The biggest problem is the lack of depth league-wide at outside back.
The midfield problems continue
Utah has a bad midfield. The parts that make up that midfield are not bad. Desiree Scott, Vero Boquete, even Katie Stangel have - at least at times - been pretty good. But as we’ve talked about before, having O’Hara and Mandy Laddish out, and Tymrak becoming less of a factor, is that it makes it easier for other teams to focus on the really good forwards Utah does have.
One of the biggest problems with having a bad midfield and yet having really good forwards is the forwards are smart enough to drop back to get the ball to help the midfield out, but often times, that just strands them on little islands which makes their overall job of scoring goals harder. Press and Rodriguez drop back, make their lives harder, and then the midfield is even more out of shape for having them there, which makes them play worse.
Every Laura Harvey team that has been successful, and every year that FC Kansas City was at their best, it was largely due to having a central (attacking) midfielder who could be the field general and on-field coach that the team needed. Kim Little and Lauren Holiday were able to be the generals in a way that Vero hasn’t been. With someone to partner with, I think Vero could blossom even more than she has, and I do not think she has been bad this year, just not well used and hurt, and the midfield would be healthier for it.
This team doesn’t have the ability to bring in a Sam Mewis or a Lindsey Horan. There is no Marta or Vanessa DiBernardo singing in the works. Harvey has to either find a way to make what she has work or spend some seriously time this off season finding someone who the team can afford to bring in to do the job.
It would also help having O’Hara back on the pitch to give some width to the team, but we’ve already gone over that, haven’t we?
The Laura Harvey of it all
Laura Harvey may be the next USWNT coach. She may not.
Laura Harvey may will her team into the NWSL playoffs. She may not.
The thing about having Laura Harvey as the head coach of a team that you care about is there are going to be incredibly frustrating moments as she takes her time to figure out just what she needs to do to make her team better.
When Utah became a club, and Harvey was named the head coach, she inherited an old FCKC team. She then tried to add to it. Getting the winning number in the Christen Press lotto isn’t easy, just ask Houston, but she hasn’t added the youth or the depth that you’d expect someone who coached in the league during a World Cup.
There is talk about if Harvey should be let go if the Royals don’t make the playoffs, and I understand the frustration with the underperforming team, but there are problems with giving Harvey her walking papers.
The most obvious question is who do you get to replace her? Women’s soccer and the NWSL has a small pool of really strong head coaching candidates. Are you, and would the Utah organization, really sure the next coach will be able to get this roster - with their own augmentations - to the next level? Are you sure some players won’t leave out of loyalty to Harvey, out of frustation of losing their head coach, out of a desire to try something new themselves?
When Utah was announced, and the roster settled going into year one of the club, I thought this would be a three-year project to get players to gel, to give Harvey time to bring in players she wanted, to get over the World Cup year and the months of players being out. After one full season and about three fourths of another, my opinion hasn’t changed. I would give Harvey - at least - another year.
That is if US Soccer doesn’t snap her up first.
The Most Noble Order of the Lioness
And now for that most special time where we must speak of the nominations for The Most Noble Order of the Lioness.
This week the honor of nomination goes to Gunny Jonsdottir. I made no secret about my option that Jonsdottir should be taken out of the starting XI for Utah. I still think her second half time as a sub is more fitting, and she has been better in that role.
Against Houston, she was much more of a spark than we usually see her. Her goal gave Utah a bit of life even if they couldn’t capitalize on it.
With that nomination, Gunny Jonsdottir is one nomination away from become a Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Lioness.
Amy Rodriguez, Desiree Scott, Christen Press, Nicole Barnhart, Vero Boquete, and Sam Johnson have already made it to Companions of the Most Noble Order of the Lioness.
Rachel Corsie need ones more nomination to officially join the order.