HERRIMAN — Utah Royals FC rookie Kate Del Fava was saying all the right things in the first significant round of media interviews during her young career.
She described well how she felt when she was drafted by the Royals — “I kind of blacked out” after not being expected to go until the fourth round — and what it meant to be inserted into the starting lineup as a rookie.
Then fellow Utah defender Rachel Corsie, the team’s vice captain who wears the armband when Amy Rodriguez isn’t on the pitch, virtually turned to her and jokingly chided her.
If Corsie, who captains Scotland at the international level, were to put it in middle American slang, she might have said something like this: You’re being too modest, kid. You earned what you got.
“Kate’s tough. She’s being modest,” Corsie said. “But rookies don’t get too many opportunities, and she’s been so great.
“She’s obviously a good athlete, but that’s a minimum with this league,” the Scottish center back added. “She has the physical attributes that enable her to step in with the games so far.”
Del Fava, who originally planned to be in graduate school by now, is a key reason why the Royals have transitioned so well to the 3-5-2 formation under first-year head coach Craig Harrington. And she’s done it while transitioning to an outside back role in a non-traditional defensive makeup, one that plays as much like a center back as a fullback, with a lot of ground to cover and the ability to play off a wingback that floats in front of her on the left side of the defense.
It’s a move that helped carry Utah to the No. 5 seed in the NWSL Challenge Cup knockout round, and a rematch with fourth-seeded Houston on Friday (8 p.m. MT, CBS All Access). The Dash and Royals played to a thrilling 3-3 draw in the preliminary stages — a match that also introduced Royals fans to Del Fava, who came on as a second-half sub.
And while fellow rookie Tziarra King’s last-gasp equalizer was the cover story of that match, Del Fava obviously impressed the coaching staff enough to be inserted into the starting lineup for the next two matches, including a 1-0 win over New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC.
“With everything that’s happened in the last couple of months, we had no idea what this tournament would look like,” Del Fava said. “But being a rookie, you never know what your role will look like on a new team.
“I didn’t know where I fit in, but I’m grateful for the opportunity that’s been presented.”
In college, Del Fava played primarily in the attack. The former Illinois State midfielder went from scoring five goals as a junior center back and defensive midfielder to scoring 17 times as a senior, a mark that ranked No. 10 nationally after the regular season. That helped spur her to Missouri Valley Conference player of the year honors — and onto the Royals’ radar.
“Kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” Illinois State coach Brad Silvey told Illinois State News of his former 4.0-earning GPA star. “She’s just very well put together and very well-rounded form a soccer standpoint, which leaves a lot of options open to a coach, in my opinion.”
And while Del Fava admits she still occasionally fights those attacking instincts to stay back and defend, the transition also hasn’t been as difficult — due to her versatility in college and playing ECNL club soccer with FC Wisconsin in Milwaukee.
“I think it’s a little different in the three-back, because our main goal is to keep the ball out of the back of the net. So I’ve been focusing on defense, and getting the ball to our goal scorers,” she said. “You always want to score goals — but I like my spot with the team and I feel like that’s what we have with so many other good (goal-scoring) players so far.”
With four days between the end of the preliminary stage and the start of tournament play, Del Fava, Corsie and the rest of the Royals finally earned a recovery day, an ice bath — and a shot at the do-or-die tournament quarterfinals.
“I think we set ourselves up as a group of players with the ambition to do really well in this tournament,” Corsie said. “To do well, you have to progress beyond the first knockout game.
“I think up to this point, it’s fair to say that the pressure hasn’t quite been there. There’s been lots and lots of growth moments. But there will be another level when the knockout round comes. That’s how competitive sports work.”
NWSL Challenge Cup
North Carolina Courage (4-0-0) vs. Portland Thorns (0-1-3), 10:30 a.m. MT (CBS All Access)
Houston Dash (1-2-1) vs. Utah Royals FC (1-2-1), 8 p.m. MT (CBS All Access)
Washington Spirit (2-1-1) vs. Sky Blue FC (1-2-1), 10:30 a.m. MT (CBS All Access)
OL Reign (1-1-2) vs. Chicago Red Stars (1-2-1), 8 p.m. MT (CBS All Access)