Thorns Preview, Thorns @ Utah, 4.28.18
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Portland to face Utah Royals team feeling the joys, burdens of starting something new

It was two hours that revealed so much about what Utah Royals FC are right now. The 19,203-person crowd that assembled at Rio Tinto Stadium on April 14 spoke to the roots the NWSL’s newest team were already laying around the club. Though the atmosphere in the stands was still in its infancy, the material for growth was abundant. Real Salt Lake’s NWSL venture had successfully mobilized their community for game one.

On the field, though, the realities of year one were apparent. Against a Chicago Red Stars team that was handcuffed by a series of debilitating absences, Utah’s attack failed to launch. A brilliantly struck Danielle Colaprico goal in the 27th minute left the Royals empty-handed, sending their throngs of new fans home on the wrong end of a 1-0 result.

From a certain view, this wasn’t supposed to happen. After all, Utah isn’t an expansion team, in the pure sense of the term. The Royals inherited their players from the former FC Kansas City, embracing a collection of talents that’d fallen eight points short of the 2017 postseason. The resources Real Salt Lake could bring to the team should make up some of that gap, the thinking went, while the inevitable return of U.S. international Amy Rodriguez was supposed to address the team’s attacking woes.

Those views, though, overlooked something that is often neglected when talking about soccer teams, an aspect of squads that can be as important as talent. Over Kansas City’s five years in the NWSL, the team formed an identity and culture that was not only tied to that club but also dependent on a person the team lost, its former head coach, Vlatko Andonovski. When Andonovski moved to Seattle Reign FC this offseason, he not only took the mind that helped produce two NWSL titles with him, but he also took the person for whom many players had elected to stay in Kansas City to play. He was the most important part of that team’s culture.

From the outside, it’s difficult to grasp the impact culture has on a team, let alone whether a team’s culture is good. Thorns fans, though, have gotten glimpses of those dynamics over the team’s time in the NWSL. In the franchise’s first season, the team made a late push to claim the league’s first title, but for much of the campaign, Portland failed to reach the heights which, before the season, many thought their talent would entail. Though in the end, the did win the inaugural NWSL Championship. Over the next two years, steadily diminishing results ended with, in 2015, a sixth-place finish and a change of course. Mark Parsons was brought in, and over his first two-plus seasons in Portland – seasons that have produced an NWSL Shield and another NWSL title – culture has been a primary concern.

Royals head coach Laura Harvey was one of the best cultivators of culture during her five years in Seattle. The loyalty she inspired from players rivaled what Andonovski got from his Kansas City corps. But Utah is not Seattle. It’s not Kansas City, either. It’s something entirely new, and as Harvey’s struggles during her first, injury- and absence-saddled year in Seattle hints, culture is not something you inject overnight.

It takes time to learn new players – to form relationships with them, figure out what motivates them, and determine how to get the most of their talents. Along the way, you see where some combinations work, others don’t. Relationships have to be nurtured. You need time to see the culture form and, as issues arise, adapt to their course.

Any early success you have along the way is just a mirage. It’s a happy one, but it doesn’t change the reality of your squad. Culture needs time to form, and until it’s there, for better or worse, you’ll never truly know what your team is capable of.

That’s the current state of the Utah Royals. In addition to struggling for goals (three in four games), dealing with prominent injuries (Rodriguez, Kelley O’Hara) and absences (Australia’s Katrina Gorry), the team still doesn’t know what it can become. What’s the ideal of this year’s Utah Royals, this season asks, and what does Harvey need to do to get them to that goal?

Off the field, Utah is starting to answer questions. If their first home game is any indication, they’re answering them quickly, affirmatively, even if more challenges are to come. On the field, those challenges are already here, and while there was certainly optimism for what the NWSL’s potential giant could do in year one, year one has nonetheless delivered the typical set of debutant’s problems.

What to watch for on Saturday:

  • Expect a noticeable presence from the Rose City Riveters at Rio Tinto on Saturday. Portland’s first visit to the Royals was circled quickly on fans’ calendars, with many carpooling Friday night to arrive in Saturday’s early hours. That evening’s game will be the Riveters’ first glimpse of the next big thing in NWSL crowds.
  • With the end of the Asian Cup and Copa América, Portland saw three new arrivals midweek: Australians Ellie Carpenter and Hayley Raso, along with Brazilian Andressinha. It’s unclear if any will see the field on Saturday, though. Raso will miss the game with a right-knee injury, while Carpenter, who turns 18 on Saturday, is “fifty-fifty” to play, per Parsons, with her transfer paperwork still to be processed. Andressinha, having arrived late Tuesday, trained with the team on Thursday.
  • A better bet to appear is Meghan Klingenberg, who continues recovering from a abdominal injury which kept her out of Friday’s game against Washington. On Thursday, Parsons said the team's first-choice left-wing back will play in Utah. Goalkeeper Adrianna Franch and center back Emily Menges are still out, however, with Franch set to undergo knee surgery next week.
  • For Utah, midfielder Katrina Gorry returned from Asian Cup, and if the Royals’ weekend match against North Carolina is any indication, the team is starting to discover how she’ll fit into their formation. The team’s normal attacking midfielder, Gunnhildur Jonsdottir, slotted into a deeper role last Saturday, leaving room higher for Gorry’s creative presence. Gorry is also capable of playing deeper, though, leaving some questions as to where the Australian international will fit into Harvey’s setup.
  • Saturday’s will be the 18th all-time meeting between Harvey and Parsons, a series that dates back to when Parsons took over the Washington Spirit midway through the 2013 season. Parsons has a 4-9-4 record against his fellow England-born coach, with his Spirit having been eliminated by Harvey’s Reign in both the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Playoffs.