For our roundtable this week, I wanted to turn our collective attention to Utah Royals FC.
They just finished their season, and we really should continue thinking and talking about them, even as RSL fights for the playoffs.
So, with that in mind, the question I asked this week: Can the debut season for Utah Royals FC be considered a success?
You’ll know the voices here from our Royals coverage, which will continue through the offseason. We’re also joined by Stockton Mair, who joined us this week as our fan voice. He wrote something about this very topic last week, and you should definitely check it out, too.
I think we can definitely call the season a success. To do so, you have to look beyond the traditional definitions where sports teams are judged in terms of where they finish in the standings, and what trophies they add to their collections.
Those things were always possible for the team, but I don’t think they were necessary to consider this season a success. When one considers the short timeline the organization worked with to build a team from almost nothing, outside of a roster full of displaced players who may not have wanted to come to Utah, there are many positives to take away from the season.
Though they had some missteps along the way that might have led to a playoff appearance, overall the team played well, especially at home. That surely combined with the general excitement of a new team to give the team the second-highest average attendance in the league, and the highest single-game attendance until the Cascadia rivalry on the last week sold out Providence Park in Portland.
These players and coaches, along with the staff behind them in the front office, started something unique and special that we can build on for the future, and the importance of what it means for soccer in general, and soccer for women, cannot be understated. To face the challenge of beginning from nothing, and to finish in a respectable 5th place while handing the runaway table leaders their only loss, is a season to be proud of.
Though the Royals missed the playoffs, they did so just barely. As a brand new franchise I don't think this necessarily matters in the terms of an inaugural season. I think the important part is what they've established in the 24 games as a whole.
The roster has become a monster of a list, stacked more than any other women's team in the world . There are multiple national team captains, numerous and consistent national team players, and several young talent that are well on their way to breaking out at the International level.
The goals scored may not have been what we wanted, but the goals allowed is more than you can ask for in season 1. If URFC can land themselves a dynamic attacking midfielder season 2 will be a glorious undertaking and an adventure well worth following.
The inaugural season for Utah Royals FC was a success, but with a few major caveats.
The first is the most obvious, missing the playoffs. The NWSL is such a different soccer league than the ones most of us are used to; only four teams make the playoffs, playoffs at all, a short season, and only nine teams in the league. This means there are very specific challenges to this league. URFC had the quality to make the playoffs, but just missed out. All those tied games came back to bite us.
The second biggest failure of the season was the cancelling of the local broadcast. At the end of the day, this would never happen to Real Salt Lake and it shows an inconstant message about how these two teams are valued. The broadcast team, Carla and Greg, were a fantastic addition to the team, and to see that whole vision dropped is a stain on this season.
Despite those frustrations, the biggest victory of the season was getting the team off the ground. This was a huge feat that was done in a very, very short period of time. This shows the quality and hard work of the people in the RSL front office. And this team wasn’t just slapped together. The creation of this team, from the coaching staff, roster, branding, facilities, etc., was beautifully executed. The team was always competitive, too. Beating North Carolina Courage is a huge marker of the quality for the Royals.
There were so many great moments; the home opener, solid attendance numbers, watching the player announcements trickle down, that first goal by Gunny, A-Rod getting the first home goal for URFC, mid season signings. All these point to the starting of a dynasty in Salt Lake and that success will always be rooted in this season.
Fan Voice: Stockton Mair (@RulersPhilly)
I believe the inaugural season for the Utah Royals was a success. From the start of the season all the way to the end, the Royals were considered a team that could make the playoffs. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We do need to remember that this was a first-year team with multiple international players who didn’t even get to train with the team until close to the season opener.
There are always growing pains for first-year teams, and it wasn’t different for the Royals. We can always look back and think “what would’ve happened if the ‘handball’ wasn’t called in the very first game?” or “what would’ve happened if we won the third game vs Sky Blue?” Instead, why don’t we look at the positive moments, like Brittany Ratcliffe’s last-second game-winning goal against North Carolina, handing them their only loss of the season? Or there’s the first win in franchise history, at home against the Washington Spirit. There’s the huge midseason trade that brought Christen Press and Samantha Johnson to the team. There are many bright spots to the season we can look at instead of the ending result.
The team fought each and every game. It doesn’t matter who was on the pitch; everyone fought all 90 minutes. Sure, some results didn’t go our way, but that’s sports for you. Overall, it was a fantastic season that was full of ups and downs, but mostly ups in my eyes. They made me very proud to have them in Utah. The team will get better. No matter the result, we need to show up each and every game. Get your season tickets now. It’s going to be a fun ride.
A team’s success is often defined by reaching the post-season, or how far it goes into the post-season. So, while, yes, missing the playoffs was disappointing for Utah Royals FC, I don’t believe, this year, we can measure the team’s success by whether it reached the post-season.
Instead, we can look at many aspects of Utah’s season as a successful one, which has laid the foundation for the seasons to come.
- Equality. From the beginning, the RSL organization set out to treat the Royals as equals to their male counterparts in Salt Lake City. They were never an afterthought or the red-headed stepchild of the organization that had to be adopted. The team was always treated as professionals with their own locker room, games at Rio Tinto Stadium, and marketed all over the city and social media.
- Embraced by the Community. As soon as the team was announced, there was such excitement and curiosity about an NWSL team in Salt Lake City, especially as the season neared. From a numbers perspective: 5,000 season tickets were sold initially; 19,203 fans packed the RioT for the historic home opener on April 14; the home average attendance was 9,466, second in the league and exceeded only by Portland Thorns FC. From a community perspective, the Royals had support all season on social media, a podcast, at games, and in person. The Utah community welcomed the team and embraced them as part of the RSL family.
- A Desired Destination for Players. You often hear of Portland and Orlando as desired destinations for players because of the level of professionalism and resources in those clubs, which are backed by MLS owners. Salt Lake City was quickly added to the list as the season was set to begin. The first player to sign with Utah was U.S. National Team member Becky Sauerbrunn, who had spent the first five years of the NWSL with FC Kansas City, the very same team that Utah replaced when FCKC ceased operations. Sauerbrunn immediately commended what the RSL organization was set to accomplish, and players from the FCKC organization including Amy Rodriguez, Nicole Barnhart, Becca Moros, Desiree Scott followed along with Kelley O’Hara, Diana Matheson, Gunny Jónsdóttir, Rachel Corsie, players who were either traded or signed with the club. In June, after spending the first half of her season in Sweden, after not wanting to play in Houston, Christen Press, another U.S. player, was traded to Utah, and she, too, expressed her excitement to join the club.
Was the first season a success? Beyond the win-loss-tie record, heck yes.