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Dealing with a pandemic: How Utah Royals are staying focused

It’s uncharted territory in NWSL history. We’re looking at how Utah Royals are responding

Lo LoBonta practices good social distancing
Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

Utah Royals FC were just a few days into the start of their preseason when COVID-19 caused the club to put a hold on training.

They were the first team in the league to abstain from training; shortly after, the league asked all other teams to stop training. That hold on practice has turned into a moratorium on all preseason training, as well as a postponement of the start of the season, which was scheduled to start on April 18.

Now, several weeks later, the team is trying to stay connected and focused while maintaining social distance. Most players are back in market, with the exceptions of the U.S. and Canada internationals — Diana Matheson, Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press, and Desiree Scott — new signing Aminata Diallo from France, and Amy Rodriguez, who is with her family in Southern California.

Royals coach Craig Harrington said they have a WhatsApp group, texts, and regular calls with players to stay connected, and that Amy Rodriguez has been a leader in making sure everyone feels connected. Harrington stressed the importance of every person on the team and staff staying involved and in conversation during this difficult time.

The coaching staff have kept busy during this time. There’s a phone call with the league three times a week, presumably with Harrington and general manager Stephanie Lee. The team’s sports performance coach, Andrew Wiseman, has prepared training plans for all the players.

These plans are formatted specifically for each individual, but also by position, which allows them to press into areas specific to their group of players and address each player’s personal needs. The coaching staff have been reviewing a lot of video footage. Harrington noted that they send video of what players do well as a form of encouragement.

Harrington said the board have spoken about different models for dealing with COVID-19 should the pandemic continue through much of the season. The team has 30, 60, and 90-day plans including the team’s focus. Harrington noted that he’s hopeful they play 26 games in 2020, but he speculates there could be a 20 or 16-game season this year, should things not clear up before long.

It’s a challenge to keep everyone sharp when you can’t practice as a group. The players all live together, with two or three players to an apartment. That helps them to have a community during a time of distancing from others. There are plans to deliver stationary bikes to each apartment, and that will help with fitness. Match fitness will almost certainly suffer, but that’s a difficulty facing all professional soccer players during this pandemic.

Utah Royals newcomer Chestley Strother posted a TikTok video of her and fellow newcomer Taylor Leach doing a dance routine. In the video both players seem to be having a lot of fun, which is an encouraging sign that they’re able to stay positive dealing this health crisis.

When asked about new player signings, Craig Harrington told RSL Soapbox that “everything is on hold for the league.”

“They have stopped all player movement — rightly so, I think — which also includes players that can be brought in for trials and preseason,” he said.

They have stayed in contact with the players they’ve already been speaking to, but everything is on hold for now. Harrington said they’re able to dig further into video analysis so they have a better idea of strengths of the group and, presumably, the needs within the team.

These are challenging times for everyone, and the coach wants his team team to be in a good place mentally and physically now so when the league resumes, they can hit the ground running.