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Utah Royals open inaugural season

Utah Royals defender Kelley O'Hara, pictured with Team USA, scores a goal on Puerto Rico in 2016. (Jae S. Lee/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

The Utah Royals began play March 24 as the state’s newest professional sports franchise. They are the state’s first entry in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL).

The NWSL was founded in 2001 and was originally called the Women’s United Soccer Association. It was then known as Women’s Professional Soccer from 2007 until 2012, when its current name was adopted.

Dell Loy Hansen acquired full ownership of the Real Salt Lake men’s soccer team in January 2013 and then shifted his focus by bringing a women’s professional soccer team to the Beehive State.

The Royals moved to Utah from Kansas City, where they won back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015. However, FC Kansas City dropped into the bottom half of the standings the last two seasons and failed to qualify for the playoffs.

The Royals first-ever match resulted in a 1–1 draw against FIFA World Cup champion Alex Morgan and Orlando Pride.

U.S. national team starter Amy Rodriguez anchors the Royals’ forward line. Rodriguez returned to league play after sitting out most of the 2017 season due to an ACL injury. Newcomer Elise Thorsnes entered the mix for her first NWSL season after she competed on the Norwegian national team.

The midfield is led by Australian national team member Katrina Gorry, who reported to the team after her national team’s World Cup qualification games. Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir, an Icelandic national team player who scored the Royals’ first goal in March, and Diana Matheson, who plays for Canada’s national team, shore up the midfield attack.

Utah Royals forward Amy Rodriguez, pictured with Team USA, against New Zealand in 2012 (Michael Prengler/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)

Defensively, the team relies on two U.S. national team starters, Kelley O’Hara and national team captain Becky Sauerbrunn, who also serves as Royals captain. Sauerbrunn was the first player from Kansas City to sign with Utah, while O’Hara was acquired in a December trade.

In the net for the Royals are Nicole Barnhart, who participated with the U.S. national team, and Abby Smith, who last played for the Boston Breakers, a team that, like Kansas City, folded during the NWSL offseason.

Hansen selected Laura Harvey as the team’s first head coach. Harvey has been named NWSL Coach of the Year twice and is the league’s all-time leader in wins with the Seattle Reign. Ironically, Harvey’s squad was defeated by FC Kansas City in the 2014 and 2015 title games.

Forward Katie Stengel leads the Royals in goals with three. Utah FC lost their most recent match 4–0 at Portland, which was notable because it was the first time in franchise history the final margin of a game was more than two goals.

The Royals’ record is currently 5–4–6, and they sit in sixth place in the NWSL. The inaugural season will continue on July 14 with an 8 p.m. home match against Orlando at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Royals’ season will continue through September, with five home games remaining.

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