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What we learned: Royals vs. Thorns on Sunday in Portland

The Royals continue to reel from internal implosions and lack of coherent approach

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Houston Dash vs Utah Royals FC Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Here are three major takeaways from the Utah Royals FC’s trip up to Portland to face the Thorns in their opening match of the 2020 NWSL Fall Series.

The flirtation with three in the back appears to be over

Throughout the Royals five-match run in the 2020 Challenge Cup, adapting to playing with three defenders in the backline was a constant and persistent theme. With only 6 regular time goals allowed across those matches, and 3 of those occurring in the first match back after the long winter and virus layoff, the defensive drawbacks were limited allowing Elizabeth Ball and Kate Del Fava to emerge as important newcomers on the backline. However, the real disappointment was in the lack of difference offensively with the additional player in the midfield. The Royals managed to score only 4 regular time goals and still struggled mightily in the midfield.

Sunday in Portland, the Royals came out in a more standard back four with predictable results. In general, the defensive line appeared adequate and up to the challenge. The first goal was an individual effort where the speed and agility of Simone Charley individually defeated both Michelle Maemone and Kate Del Fava after the midfield allowed Lindsay Horan plenty of time to scan the field. Also, the Royals midfield, now a player lighter, continued to struggle both offensively and defensively.

The Royals midfield continues to be a major sore point

As mentioned above, the midfield continued to struggle defensively as they consistently failed to contest the first ball forward and distribution into the Thorns front line attackers. The Thorns were able to move up out of the back at will and had plenty of time to switch the field and scan for open attacking players. Much too often, they became onlookers to the actions and movement of the Thorns.Mm

Offensively, the Royals midfield was consistently slow to play the ball and failed to recognize the Thorns effort to jam the center of the field with their diamond formation. Far too many hesitant balls went into the center to be broken up or intercepted with taking the space being offered by the Thorns on the wings. The arrival of Vero Boquete after half time provided some spark and a little urgency, but it fizzled far too quickly. Aminata Diallo continues to show that she needs more time to embed in Utah and has yet to develop any partnership in the center of the midfield.

The Royals have been more sorely influenced by Utah front office issues than previously believed

Several events just before the game revealed continuing unrest and turmoil with the organization. Many of the players posted a strong unified statement of frustration and longing for a new start on social media early this morning. Hours later, it was also revealed by the announcing crew for the match that Head Coach Craig Harrington and Assistant Coach Louis Lancaster had been placed on a leave of absence from team activities. No prepared public announcement was made by the front office, who although working short-handed and in difficult circumstances, continue to work behind the scenes and the flow of news.

Surely it will be a tall order to expect the Royals to perform in unison on the field while the fallout and revelations about issues with their former management continue to implode around them. Hopefully, the players can continue to band together behind veteran leaders and newcomers alike to emerge stronger from this season of upheaval, chaos, and change.