Utah Royals FC 2020 Season Preview – scout report
Entering the 2020 NWSL campaign we find a Utah Royals team that is looking to step up to the next level. The Royals are technically the youngest team in the league having been established in 2018. Their first season saw the team finish in fifth place out of nine with 22 goals for (bottom three in the league) and 23 goals against (top three in the league) for a negative one goal differential.
2019 brought an organization hungry to improve on their 2018 midtable finish and move into the top four to qualify for the NWSL playoffs. Despite winning more games, the Royals finished in sixth place with 25 goals for (sixth place) and 25 goals against (tied for second).
The stage is set for a 2020 campaign for a club that seems to have a solid defensive foundation, but with much room for improvement on the attacking side. This tactical analysis scout report will look at a few tactical trends we can expect in the upcoming NWSL season.
Offseason moves and Draft Day 2020
The Royals have made substantial moves this offseason that convey the franchise is ready to take a step in a new direction.
Firstly, manager Laura Harvey decided to part ways with the team and become the new U-20 USWNT coach. This left the Royals with an opportunity to choose its next guide in the quest for silverware. Craig Harrington was chosen to lead the way.
Harrington arrives from his position as a first assistant for the Chicago Red Stars for the previous two seasons. During those seasons the Red Stars saw two playoff appearances and a loss in the championship match in 2019. Harrington started his coaching journey in a youth soccer role with LA Galaxy’s academy in 2010. In 2013 Harrington was named the technical director and head coach of the Turks and Caicos national football team. During his stint with Turks and Caicos he helped the men’s team to its highest ever FIFA ranking.
The NWSL draft saw the Royals initiate a trade to move up into the first round of picks. The Royals acquired the eighth pick from the Chicago Red Stars for allocation money. With this pick, the Royals immediately chose midfielder Tziarra King. King started every game in her career at North Carolina State and amassed forty-eight goals in eighty-eight games as a midfielder.
For the twelfth pick, the Royals selected midfielder Kate Del Fava out of Illinois State. Del Fava brings a similar attacking flair out of the midfield having scored seventeen goals in twenty matches during her senior year.
To finish off the draft, the Royals went for forward Cyera Hintzen. Hintzen has spent time with the U-19 USWNT and is a product of Sting Soccer Club, who were named ECNL overall club champions in 2017/18.
Just last week the Royals announced a franchise-changing trade. Becky Sauerbrunn, debatably the best defender in United States history, was being traded to the Portland Thorns. The Royals, in exchange, would gain defender Elizabeth Ball and allocation money.
Calling Sauerbrunn the best defender in her country’s history is no overstatement. Sauerbrunn possesses two World Cup titles and has 174 caps for the United States. In addition to those accolades, she is a four-time NWSL Defender of the Year winner (one of them being in 2019) and has been in the NWSL Best XI a record seven times.
Giving us little hints to how he will like to see his squad play in the upcoming season, Craig Harrington offered us a little insight into how he plans to use incoming Elizabeth Ball. Harrington: “Elizabeth offers us real defending adaptability and options. She has shown in the past that she can play a variety of positions and her versatility allows us to be flexible to a lot of formations.”
Along with the addition of Ball to the backline, the Royals also announced the signing of centre-back Taylor Leach. Leach has spent the last four season with Kopparbergs/Göteborg FC where she played part of the 2018 season with Christian Press. During her time in Sweden, Leach helped the club to qualify for their first Champions League birth in over five years.
Although a managerial change and the loss of a substantial player could lead to a completely different tactical approach for the 2020 season, there is a little comment that can be found in the Royals’ press releases during the offseason.
General Manager Stephanie Lee had this to say of hiring Craig Harrington: “Our biggest priorities in this search were to find someone who understands the competitive level of this League, and who will continue to build upon the Royals established principles and style of play. We selected Craig because he not only demonstrated his knowledge of both those elements, but because he believes in building a holistic vision and plan of what we want the Royals to look-like and build upon, creating a true organizational identity.”
With that comment, we can expect to see not a full tactical shift, but possibly a doubling down on improving and enhancing the current attacking and defending tactics the Utah Royals utilise. With that in mind, we can look back and see a few tactical consistencies from the 2019 season.
In possession: building out from the back
When possessing the ball, Utah primarily sought to build out from the back to progress the ball to the attacking third of the pitch, much like Barcelona or Manchester City would in men’s football. This was primarily done by splitting the centre-backs into the halfspaces, pushing the fullbacks into the second attacking line and using primarily a double pivot (sometimes a single pivot).
With this shape Utah aimed to circulate the ball through their deep positional structure created to draw in the opposing team. Once the opposing team was drawn towards the ball, higher positioned attacking players would drop into the newly created space between the opposing midfield and defending lines. This receiving space was then used as a platform to receive the ball and advance play into the attacking third.
Below we see an example against Sky Blue. Sky Blue have set up in a mid-block with their midfield player retreating to the halfway line. Reacting to this initial positioning, Utah move their defensive and central midfield players into a 2-4 structure in front of the Sky Blue midfield.
Once the positions have been established, the Royals circulate the ball within the structure to draw in pressure from nearby Sky Blue players.
Off-screen the left forward Christian Press is maintaining a high position to pin back the Sky Blue defensive line. After a few passes by the Royals unit, the Sky Blue midfield line has been drawn forward and space has been created between the midfield and defensive line.
Now, when a Royals defender or deep central midfielder receives the ball, they turn their body upfield to look for Press. Upon seeing central midfielder Veronica Boquete turn upfield, Press quickly drops into the space between the defensive and midfield lines to receive and progress the ball forward.
This tactic seemed to be hit or miss throughout the last season. Against teams that allocated a more aggressive out of possession tactical approach, the Royals tended to have issues.
Below we see a match against North Carolina Courage, who are quite intense in their pressing approach.
Utah have allocated a single pivot in order to move a central midfielder higher up the pitch and create a forward passing outlet out of the Courage press. Despite the positional change to create more forward attacking options, the Royals had problems progressing out of their defensive third.
In the image below, the Royals players are fairly well-positioned as far as creating options for the ball carrier at different heights and lines. The problem lies in the fact the Royal’s off the ball attackers remain static as the Courage players initiate a player to player press.
Once the Utah players are marked, there is little-to-no off the ball movement and all nearby passing option are cut off. Teams like Courage and Thorns routinely allocated this type of press on the flanks to create progression problems for the Royals.
The Royals were consistently able to create an attacking structure when building out of the back that helped to create maximum passing options for the ball carrier. This tended to work well against teams with passive out of possession tactics.
Against teams with more aggressive out of possession tactics, the Royals had trouble advancing to the attacking third and creating goal-scoring situations.
Out of possession: 4-3-1-2
When out of possession, Utah typically deployed in a 4-3-1-2 shape that prioritized central compactness. By prioritising compactness in the central channel, the Royals were able to direct play to the flanks and in that moment enact an effective player to player press.
This was done by completely cutting off the opponent pivot player as an option and passively pressuring the centre-backs. Once the ball was played to the flank, all Royals players would instantly move to mark nearby passing options and create intense pressure on the ball carrier.
In the previously mentioned match against Sky Blue we can see the 4-3-1-2 shape play out. Sky Blue are attempting to play out of the back. Utah have dropped into a midblock while the forwards and central attacking midfielder have remained higher up the pitch in the pivot space.
In this specific match, the Royals want the ball to be circulated to Sky Blue left-back Imani Dorsey. When the ball is played to Sky Blue’s right centre-back, Press applies pressure to the centre-back while creating a cover shadow to eliminate the right-back as an option.
This forces Sky Blue to move the ball to the left side of the pitch, which is exactly what the Royals want.
As soon as the ball is moved the Dorsey on the left flank, the Royals press is initiated. Central midfielder Lo’Eau Labonta sprints towards Dorsey as the ball travels towards her. As Labonta applies pressure, the entire Royals unit shifts to a player to player marking scheme.
In the moment that Dorsey receives the ball on the left flank, Labonta is instantly on her. In addition to this, Dorsey has no nearby passing options to move the ball away from danger. The Royals quickly gain possession of the ball.
Utah routinely used this out of possession positioning and pressing technique. Below we see a very similar scenario playing out against the North Carolina Courage, who are attempting to build out of the back.
In this moment we can see that Royal’s forwards and central attacking midfielder have taken up their roles in eliminating the pivot player as well as marking the centre-backs. As the ball was played to the Courage right flank, the nearby Utah players quickly closed down nearby passing options while also applying pressure to the ball carrier. Royals gain possession of the ball.
Overall, we can see that the Royal’s out of possession tactics were fairly effective. This is reflected in the fact that the Royal have finished in top three for goals against in each of two campaigns in the NWSL.
In possession: Christian Press
Christian Press is a very important piece of the Utah Royal’s attacking tactic. This should not be surprising considering she still holds the all-time scoring and assists record at Stanford University. She is also a two-time World Cup winner with the USWNT with whom she has 138 caps and 58 goals.
She is a true dynamic attacker and offers plenty of ways to help the Royals place the ball in the back of the net.
Above we mentioned that Press likes to drop into space to receive when the Royals are building out of the back. Opponents are typically not keen to let her have space to manoeuvre in between the lines. This commonly leads to Press being swarmed by the opponent as soon as she receives the ball. The Royals aim to use this moment as an opportunity to move the ball into newly opened spaces left behind by the swarming defenders.
Below is an image from the Sky Blue match. Press has received the ball in space between the midfield and defensive lines. This immediately triggers four players to pressure Press. Looking at the image we can see that the Sky Blue defensive line is now completely out of shape and ripe for exploitation.
The Royals send a deep player bombing forward up the flank to receive a horizontal pass from Press. The pass is successful, but little attacking ground is gained. We can see in this moment that if Utah positions attacking players nearby and ahead of press, the opened space can be exploited.
In addition to dropping into space to receive and draw pressure, Press allocates a fair amount of attacking runs into the box. This is often done while her striking partner pushes forward and draws opponent central defenders with her.
Press lies in wait on the defending unit’s blindside and awaits a dangerous attacking gap to be opened in the box. As soon as her striking teammate has made a forward run, Press arrives typically unmarked into the middle of the box. This leads to a quality chance on goal.
Below is an image from Press’ first match back from the 2019 World Cup. The Royals have played the ball down the right flank. While the entire defensive unit has their vision directed towards the right side of the pitch, Press lies in wait at the top of the box in the left halfspace.
A teammate makes an attacking run forward to draw the opponent centre-backs away from the middle of the box. As the centre-backs are beginning to pull away from the middle area, Press has already started her run and is arriving in the dangerous attacking space.
The ball is crossed and Press takes a one-touch shot on goal.
Press offers a multitude of attacking tactics for the Utah Royals squad. Harrington will assuredly aim to maximize her on-the-ball skill and dangerous off-the-ball movement to create more goal-scoring chances.
Moving toward the 2020 campaign, the sense of optimism is palpable in the Utah Royals organization. For two years Utah Royals FC has been looked at as a team of immense talent, but lacking in ability to translate the talent into results on the field. Moving forward the Royals hope to see their talented players form into a force to be reckoned with, as this tactical analysis has shown.