The Washington Spirit started 2019 off with a confident 2-0 win over Sky Blue FC, but things are about to get tougher. Utah Royals FC nearly made the playoffs last year, for one thing, and the Spirit are on the road for the first time under Richie Burke. To help us preview what the Spirit are going to see tomorrow, we asked Lucas Muller from RSL Soapbox about Utah’s offseason changes and some heightened expectations:
Black and Red United: Looking back on 2018, Utah just barely missed out on a playoff spot despite only scoring 22 goals on the season. Has the offseason been more about changing the gameplan to be more attack-minded, or is the focus on simply adding more attacking talent?
Lucas Muller: It’s too soon to tell if Laura Harvey has changed her game plan much for 2019 but it’s safe to assume with the addition of Verónica “Vero” Boquete, the team is looking to be more effective in their attack. On paper, Utah Royals FC looked like a dangerous team in the attack with players like Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez, yet in 2018 the team was 7th for goal scored. The golden boot winner in that season was not one of the national team players, but Katie Stengel, who had some fantastic goals last year. Goal scoring is the number one issue that the team needs to address, and Vero may be the player that unlocks the attack.
B&RU: Most preseason predictions seem to focus on last year’s playoff teams all making it back to the postseason, and there hasn’t been a lot of talk about Utah. However, Royals FC finished last season on a 4-1-1 streak. Is there a sense that the team can carry that form over after the (too long) NWSL offseason?
LM: There really is. Both the fans and the team have a lot of belief that this club can go far and have the right personnel to do it. Harvey is a solid coach, and after a proper offseason that doesn’t include building a brand new club, the team should gel much more. On Thursday, Harvey said a year of history has allowed them to build relationships that they simply did not have this time last season.
They’re also in a decent position to weather the World Cup storm. Attackers like Stengel and A-Rod will remain here, along with key midfielders like Vero and Gunny. The defense will feel the World Cup most, as any team losing Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Rachel Corsie will struggle. But there are some good players on the backline even without the national teamers. That will be a nervy time, but I think they’ll have a decent showing.
B&RU: Which 3 players have to produce big games on Saturday for Utah to take the three points?
LM: The number one player to watch will be Vero. She’s new to the team but has so much skill and experience. If she can pull the strings in the 10 role, that will allow the Royals attackers to thrive.
Abby Smith will likely be starting in goal. She’s a talented keeper, but has been prone to mistakes at times. A number of goals happened because she was too far outside her box. If she can have a good game without some of those errors from last season, that’ll be a big step in the right direction.
Christen Press will want to prove herself. She’s often been in the shadow of Alex Morgan and club play is a good opportunity to step up. She’s also fighting for more time with the national team, and the Royals is another opportunity to show her worth. Press could be the most important player for Utah, perhaps only behind Sauerbrunn, if she can be as productive as she’s been in previous seasons. Joining the team last summer did her a disservice, so the offseason should be a big benefit to her.