Thorns Preview, Thorns vs. Utah, 5.25.18
(ISI Photos)

Thorns FC NWSL Preview | Portland welcomes new, already improved Utah Royals

It’s an impossibly low number, even if it’s only been eight games. But compared to the rest of the National Women’s Soccer League, the Utah Royals’ “5” stands out.

No other team is close to Laura Harvey’s in terms of their lack of goals allowed. Considering most new teams focus their efforts at the back, first, there seems little question about the Royals’ progress. Eight games into their existence, the league’s newest team has fully accomplished job number one.

That success provides some early, perhaps needed context for the club, one that looked very much like an expansion side when they hosted Portland Thorns FC four weeks ago. Back then, as the teams played out a 1-1 draw, Utah’s path was still an open question. For all the experience the team’s core had brought over from FC Kansas City, they were still going through process every new team had to endure. From developing a style, to establishing a mentality, to turning each into wins on the field, the Royals looked very near the beginning of their process when Portland visited Sandy on April 28.

2018 NWSL Goals Allowed
Rank Team Games Goals Allowed
1 Utah Royals FC 8 5
2 Seattle Reign FC 8 8
3 North Carolina Courage 10 9

For the most part, that remains the case, with the team’s attack still struggling to produce goals (seven in eight games), but in terms of Utah’s broader arc, the Royals have a lot to be encouraged about. United States icon Becky Sauerbrunn’s presence in central defense has proved as valuable as predicted, Abby Smith has solidified her presence in goal, while a robust, active midfield of Katrina Gorry, Gunnhildur Jonsdottir and Desiree Scott has gelled since the former’s mid-spring arrival.

If you were to image the tasks of building a team as a checklist – with everything from identifying players to solidifying each level of the field listed out – Utah has most of its boxes checked, by now. Way of playing? Check, if still improving. Identity? Check. Defense, midfield, mentality? All already checked off. The only place where the team continues to struggle is scoring goals.

2018 NWSL Goals Scored
Rank Team Games Goals Scored
1 North Carolina Courage 10 19
... .... ... ...
8 Houston Dash 10 9
9 Washington Spirit 8 8
10 Utah Royals FC 8 7
11 Sky Blue FC 7 5

For a Thorns team coming off its season’s first shutout, Utah looks like opportunity to start a bit of a defensive run, even if a back injury will keep standout central defender Emily Sonnett out of the lineup. But to look at Utah’s past and assume future behavior ignores the progress of a project that’s only been around for six months. If Harvey’s already forged a defense and midfield – the two levels almost any coach would want to address, first – then who’s to say the same efforts won’t eventually lead to more goals?

Two months ago, the answer to that question would have been “the personnel,” with Harvey struggling to find combinations that could open up opposing defenses. Since then, the Royals boss has seen U.S. international Amy Rodriguez return to the team, and although the World Cup-winner and Olympic gold medalist hasn’t been pouring in the goals (one in 320 minutes), her runs within the defense have opened up the game for her teammates. And on Saturday, in letting a pass run for teammate Erika Tymrak, Rodriguez implicitly setup a much-needed game-winning goal.

“What Amy Rodriguez did for the goal is world-class,” Laura Harvey said after her team’s 1-0 win over Houston. “Not many center forwards would not shoot there.”

The Royals don’t have any players who’ve scored more than once this season, but in the aggregate, their trends are still going in the right direction. Utah has found net six times over their last 450 minutes after only scoring once in its first three matches. For a team that’s scarcely conceding at the other end, that’s more than enough goals to stay within striking distance near the top of the table.

2018 NWSL Standings, places 3 through 8
Rank Team Games Points Goal Difference
3 Portland Thorns FC 9 12 0
4 Orlando Pride 9 12 0
5 Chicago Red Stars 10 12 1
6 Utah Royals FC 8 11 2
7 Houston Dash 10 10 -5

As you can see, that’s exactly where Utah lies. Eight games into their existence, the Royals are only one point out of a playoff spot, and while their 2-1-5 record says they need to get convert more draws into wins, their season’s trajectory hints they will, just as they did on Saturday against Houston

“That’s what’s been our biggest challenge, our biggest learning curve, is turning those one points into three,” Harvey said. “And today was a good example of that. This (performance) three, four weeks ago would have probably been a draw.”

With the NWSL’s best defense, Utah has its foundation in place. And now, as the team’s attack improves, they’re building on that stability, creating a squad which, Friday at Providence Park, may be poised to take another step forward.

What to watch for on Friday (, 7:30 p.m.):

  • Amy Rodriguez spent most of the last two seasons on the sidelines, meaning it’s been a while since she visited Providence Park. Her last appearance here, though, was a triumphant one, helping lead FC Kansas City to its second-straight title in its 2015 Championship game victory over Harvey’s Seattle Reign FC.
  • Harvey’s return to Providence Park will be without one of her best players, with U.S. international Kelley O’Hara sidelined with a hamstring injury. The former Sky Blue standout had recently been moved from fullback to wing as part of Utah returning to full health. Whatever improvement Utah musters in the short term, it will be without the most threatening wide talent.
  • For Portland, the absence of Emily Sonnett will be huge, but with Emily Menges and Katherine Reynolds, the team has two strong players in central defense. At right back, either Midge Purce or Ellie Carpenter could be chosen, with both having contributed on the wing in Washington.
  • And the obligatory update between rivals: Friday’s will be the 19th all-time meeting between Harvey and Thorns FC head coach Mark Parsons, a series that dates back to when Parsons took over the Washington Spirit midway through the 2013 season. Parsons has a 4-9-5 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.