The brutal opening stretch is behind the Orlando Pride, who now can turn their attention toward a more normal NWSL schedule. That starts Saturday evening at Orlando City Stadium as the Utah Royals pay a visit.
The Pride have already played three matches while the Royals have played only once. Marc Skinner’s squad hasn’t yet adapted completely to what he’s trying to do, but the Pride will look to take another step forward against a sound Utah side.
To help everyone learn more about the Pride’s next opponent, I spoke with Lucas Muller, one of the editors over at SB Nation’s RSL Soapbox. I answered Lucas’ questions as well and you can read those over at their place.
What are the biggest changes with the Utah Royals in 2019 from last season?
Lucas Muller: The addition of Verónica “Vero” Boquete is certainly the biggest change from the 2018 season. Vero has had a long and successful career, having played in Europe, Asia, and North America. She also captained Spain at the 2015 World Cup. Boquete is the only major signing Utah Royals FC made this off-season, but after one game she looked good. The Royals struggled in the attack last year, and Vero is the kind of player that can pull the strings as a playmaker and she could be the piece that unlocks the attack this season.
Aside from Vero, having a preseason that did not include starting a new club is significant. Head Coach Laura Harvey said that the relationships on the team are much stronger a year into the club than they were this time last year. Christen Press is a big part of that. She came in halfway through last season and underperformed when compared to her previous NWSL play. She’s already looking better in the one game the team has played, with a better understanding with her teammates and that will be key to the attack’s success this year.
Everyone knows Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Amy Rodriguez, but who are the unsung heroes for Utah that the Pride must pay attention to?
LM: Katie Stengel got the golden boot for Utah Royals FC last year. She’s a solid center forward. Vero is also key, as mentioned above. Gunny Jónsdóttir is the iron woman of URFC, having played every single minute in club history.
There’s also an interesting battle for the keeper position. Abby Smith played the majority of minutes last season, but an injury kept her out of the 18 for a stretch, and we saw Nicole Barnhart take up the position. Barnie is a fantastic keeper. She’s also the oldest player in the league, but still looks good. Smith should be the future at keeper for the team, but she’ll have to really prove herself to supplant a legend like Barnhart.
Kelley O’Hara has unfortunately had some recent injury struggles. Who is stepping up to fill her shoes and how well are they doing it?
LM: Much of Utah Royals’ success came through good defending, but with a string of injuries and an upcoming World Cup, it’s an area that feels a little thin right now. Becca Moros spent much of last year in the Kelley O’Hara role, but Moros is out with a left knee injury. Rookie Michelle Maemone stepped up big in their season open against the Washington Spirit at the weekend. She had a fever the day before the game, but still played 60 minutes before being replaced by O’Hara. Maemone performed well and could prove a regular player during the World Cup stretch.
What’s your projected starting lineup for Utah and your score prediction?
LM: We’ll likely see a very similar lineup to last week: Nicole Barnhart; Kelley O’Hara, Rachel Corsie, Becky Sauerbrunn, Katie Bowen; Desiree Scott, Verónica Boquete, Gunny Jónsdóttir, Lo’eau Labonta; Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez. I think O’Hara gets a start, but comes off early in the second half.
Score prediction: Orlando 1, Utah 2.
Big thanks to Lucas for providing some context and background ahead of Saturday’s match.