Rick Bowmer, AP Photo

New-look Utah Royals off to offensive start in NWSL Challenge Cup

By Sean Walker, KSL.com | Posted - Jul. 7, 2020 at 9:10 p.m.

HERRIMAN — The first glimpse of Utah Royals FC through two games of the NWSL Challenge Cup was … a bit different, to say the least.

A lot has been made of the restructuring under new head coach Craig Harrington, but one of the first changes he made to the three-year-old professional women’s soccer outlet in Salt Lake City was clear.

When the Royals took the field, first in a 3-3 draw with the Houston Dash that featured a stunning late equalizer from rookie Tziarra King and then a 1-0 win over New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC, the squad lined up with only three defenders in the back.

That 3-5-2 formation was a bit disingenuous at times, with two wingback midfielders that floated into the back line on defensive plays. But the message was clear.

These aren’t yesterday’s Royals.

“I’ve been a winger my whole life, and getting to play wingback was pretty fun,” said Utah defender Michelle Maemone, a converted fullback whose primary job as a rookie in 2019 was backing up U.S. international Kelley O’Hara. “It’s a great experience. I’m really thankful for the opportunity.”

The move isn’t anything too new to Maemone, though, whose team will face OL Reign in the third match of the four-game preliminary stage Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. MT (CBS All Access). She helped anchor a back line that allowed just 0.82 goals-against average as a senior at Pepperdine, the best mark in the West Coast Conference.

But before that, Maemone was a winger and a forward.

So getting to play wingback — a unique hybrid role that combines the defensive vision of a fullback with the forward-facing efficacy of a winger — has been fun for the 5-foot-7 second-year player selected in the third round of the 2019 NWSL collegiate draft.

“Because I played outside back in college for most of my career, I think the way we play the wingback is pretty similar,” Maemone said. “You’re responsible to get back and defend, but also to get forward.

“The experience I’ve had playing soccer in a couple of different positions has definitely helped me to play the way I have now. It’s definitely paying off.”

Utah Royals FC forward Tziarra King (3) receives a hug from teammate Lo'eau LaBonta after scoring against the Houston Dash during the second half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium Tuesday, June 30, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Maemone added that everyone’s pretty versatile in the NWSL, which is widely viewed as the top women’s soccer league in the world, where every full-time member of the two-time defending world champion U.S. women’s national team plays.

That was the case for Gunny Jonsdottir, who signed with Laura Harvey’s Royals to play as an attacking midfielder, then moved to the No. 6 holding midfield role, and lined up at fullback in Harrington’s 3-5-2 system against Houston.

In a position where the outside defenders and wingbacks constantly overlap, Jonsdottir has a bit of experience as well.

“It’s definitely a new position I’m playing, but I play a three-back with Iceland a lot and had to play the right wingback spot there,” she said. “It’s a formation I know well, and have played a lot at the highest level.

“I’m not uncomfortable playing in the back. I play where the coach wants me to play. Just work hard, and be grateful to have good teammates around me.”

The move has vaulted Utah to a 1-0-1 start for four points in the eight-team Challenge Cup of the NWSL, which was the first professional team sports league to return to play since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of the U.S. economy.

In their first match back, the Royals’ three goals scored against Houston equaled the scoring output of the first three matches of the 2019 season.

One match later, the formation change and adaptability with the system helped open the connection between Amy Rodriguez and Vero Boquete, who combined on the only goal in the 1-0 win over Sky Blue.

All part of the plan, Harrington said.

“I’ve said it all along that we want to be playing attacking-minded. So playing 4-5 at the back doesn’t necessarily do that for me,” Harrington said. “I want to get numbers up the field and give A-Rod a partner that she can play off and for Vero to get combination underneath. I wanted to make sure we had numbers in the midfield to try and dominate the ball.”

The Royals “surprised themselves” with the way they picked up the new formation, Jonsdottir said. But less surprising were the reasons for its quicker-than-expected assimilation.

“No matter what formation you have, you have the same mentality and work ethic,” Jonsdottir said. “It’s not something you can take away from our team. We’re a great group of girls that are willing to work for each other, be there for each other, go on the field, and put our butts on the line for a win.”

NWSL Challenge Cup

Utah Royals FC (1-0-1, 4 points) vs. OL Reign (0-1-1, 1 point)

Kickoff: July 8 at 10:30 a.m. MT

Streaming: CBS All Access

Radio: ESPN 700

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