The 2020 “season” was played in two sections: the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup this summer and the Fall Series. Utah Royals FC won one game out of nine matches between those two competitions. It was not the 2020 season anyone hoped for, but 2020 has been...well, 2020. But the bizarre season is over, and we look ahead to the off-season. Here’s what we’re watching.
Craig Harrington is gone. Who’s the next head coach?
Finally, after nearly two months, the club announced Monday that Craig Harrington is no longer the head coach of Utah Royals FC, terminating his contract. Harrington was placed on administrative leave on September 20th, tying him to the toxic culture in the organization.
It was an announcement long overdue, but we’ll guess it’s due to legal matters that the club nor Harrington could say much, which is probably why we received responses that the club was still investigating, and he had not been fired. But his termination was inevitable.
So now we’re back at another coaching hire. Utah can definitely look to the outside, either the college ranks or within the NWSL. If I had to give a recommendation, I would look to Scot Vallow, the assistant coach at the North Carolina Courage. Vallow has assisted Paul Riley from the Portland Thorns FC to Western New York Flash, where they won an NWSL Championship in 2016 to the Courage, winning two additional NWSL Championships (2018 and 2019).
But Utah can also promote interim head coach Amy LePeilbet to a permanent position. LePeilbet led URFC in the Fall Series, and though the team did not win any games, there were some improvements: young players scoring (King, Diallo) and holding Portland to a 1-1 draw in their second game of the series. LePeilbet has been with the organization since its inaugural season and as a former player, she understands the league. LePeilbet also coached the Utah Reserves, leading them to the Championship game in 2019.
Don’t expect any head coaching news until the RSL organization (Utah Soccer Holdings, LLC) is officially sold, which brings me to my next topic.
What if the new ownership wants to sell Utah Royals FC?
At press time, there’s no word on a leading candidate to buy Utah Soccer Holdings, LLC after Dell Loy Hansen was forced to sell his franchise, which includes Real Salt Lake, Utah Royals FC, and Real Monarchs. I’ve heard it could be the Millers, who just sold the Utah Jazz to Ryan Smith, who apparently has a lot of money and could buy Utah Soccer Holdings, too.
Whoever decides to buy the franchise, the big question on my mind is...will he/they want to continue investing in URFC? We can definitely agree that Dell Loy Hansen was not a very good owner, but we can also agree that he did, what probably not many MLS owners were willing to do at the time, invest heavily in an NWSL team, including marketing, building a new locker room, and treating the team equally. The new owner would have to be willing to show the same level of commitment.
If URFC is sold, it could be to a group of investors, similar to what we saw with Angel City FC in LA. Should that be the case, does URFC stay in Utah? The NWSL is looking to continue to expand. Could this be an opportunity to move the team out of the state and expand into a bigger market?
Mind you, these are questions and hypotheticals. Salt Lake City already has an established fanbase, one that has shown excitement and loyalty. Rio Tinto Stadium is also the second highest attended NWSL market. And hopefully all of this is enough.
Other matters to follow:
- Expansion Draft. Does Racing Louisville take a risk and draft unprotected Christen Press, giving URFC $75,000 in allocation money?
- Kelley O’Hara. Does she really stay in Utah? It’s no secret she wants to play in Washington, but leaving her unprotected would mean going to Louisville whose head coach is Christy Holly. O’Hara and Holly are not strangers to one another, but it’s not a solid relationship since Holly coached Sky Blue FC, and issues within the club and players back then left Holly without a coaching job.
- Utah needs another midfielder. With Vero Boquete signing with AC Milan, Utah needs to replace her creativity and leadership in the midfield. Not sure how, not sure who, but it might have to be a major signing or trade if Utah wants to be competitive in 2021.