The Washington Spirit have already played Utah Royals FC, but a lot has changed for both teams since the second week of the season. With both clubs in great form, we wanted to know more about what makes the Royals tick. So, we reached out to RSL Soapbox’s Lucas Muller, who has more on the team that leads the Spirit atop the NWSL table only on the basis of head-to-head play:
B&RU: When these teams last met, Utah had their full complement of World Cup players. Now that everyone is heading off to France, how much have things changed? Of the players who have assumed starting roles, who has stood out?
Lucas Muller: Katie Bowen was the last Utah Royal player to leave for the World Cup (New Zealand). She played her last game on Saturday, May 25th. It’s certainly a different team now. The biggest challenge will be the defense. With Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Corsie, Katie Bowen, and Desiree Scott all out, keeping those clean sheets that we saw at the start of the season will be much more difficult.
There are good options in those positions, even without the national team players. Becca Moros has returned from injury and she did a fantastic job of stepping in when O’Hara was injured last season. Samantha Johnson would likely be a starting center back on most other NWSL teams. Gaby Vincent has done very well in the game and a half she’s played (center back), and it’s impressive to see a player who came through open tryouts contribute to the first team.
The players that have impressed the most this season shouldn’t be a surprised to anyone: Amy Rodriguez and Nicole Barnhart. Both players are former US National Team regulars, who may have aged out from those duties but are still incredible players. There’s a lot of comfort in knowing that both ends of the field have such talented veterans.
B&RU: Lo’eau Labonta has been a starter this year, but she just picked up a suspension from the league. Who do you expect to step into the midfield for her, and how much will that impact Royals FC?
LM: The two game suspension that LoBonta received was a fair punishment, but it comes at a terrible time. Lo had really stepped up recently and looked good.
Erika Tymrak would be my choice to step in for Lo. It would mean she would play more defensively than what we’re used to, but she’s a more veteran presence on the team.
Another option would be Makenzy Doniak She’s recently back from a long term injury and has seen substitution minutes in the last three URFC games. She scored a goal against Orlando, which was the first time all season the Royals have scored more than one goal in a game.
B&RU: Even going back to last year, Utah always seems to find themselves in very close games. Is that just a coincidence, or is there something in Utah’s style of play that leads to so many one-goal games?
LM: Utah has struggled to create chances. They’ve always been very strong in the defense, which has carried the team through a lot of games. There are a lot of reasons that go into why they’ve struggled to create goal scoring opportunities, from injuries to personnel changes. Vero Boquete was brought into the team to be that spark that helps create those chances. She’s still new to the team, so it’s reasonable to say there’s an adjustment period, but the connection between the midfield and the attack isn’t quite there yet. She has had two assists, so hopefully that’s coming. She is incredible with the ball at her feet, but there is a slight disconnect with what she wants to do and what the attackers are doing. I suspect that as time goes on, Utah will be a much more dangerous team in the attack.