‘Why not shoot for the stars?’: Utah Royals head coach has high hopes for first season

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This may be their first season, but don’t count the Utah Royals out of championship contention this year.

Head coach Amy Rodriguez and sporting director Kelly Cousins shared their high hopes for the team they built from scratch with the media Friday ahead of Saturday’s home opener for the 2024 NWSL season — which will be Utah’s first NWSL match since 2020, when the team was sold and moved to Kansas City. The NWSL announced the return of a rebooted version of the team in 2023.

“It’s never been done before in pro sports to win a championship in a first year of (a) franchise, and so why not shoot for the stars?” Rodriguez said.

When Rodriguez accepted the head coaching job, she was told she would never win as many championships as a coach as she did as a player.

“I am taking that as an absolute challenge that if I can win two NWSL championships as a player, why can’t I win more than that as a coach?” she said. “That’s what I’ve set out to do. I told the group this year, we are climbing to a championship. That is the goal. I know we’re an expansion team. I know we’re the underdog. We’re probably going to be picked last instead of first, but I have my sights set really high. No other professional team in any American pro sport in any league has ever won a championship in their inaugural season in their first franchise year. And I know technically we’re not a first franchise team, but we really are, we built from scratch.”

Utah Royals: Building a foundation

Cousins was a little more pragmatic with her expectations for the team’s success in its first season.

“The vision is to win, like we want to win the championship,” she said. “It’s not gonna happen overnight.”

She sees the Royals as true contenders in the next two or three seasons while the team focuses on being built in “the right way.”

“I think this year will be about the building blocks, putting those in place. I think right now we’ve got really, really good foundation,” she said. “We’ve got a really strong locker room. We’ve got some unbelievable talent in the squad right now.”

It’s not unheard of for an expansion team to experience success right out of the gate. In San Diego’s first two seasons, the Wave reached the NWSL semifinals twice and secured the NWSL Shield last season as the club with the best regular season record.

The Wave give Cousins hope for a quick turnaround, she admitted.

“If you put in the work and you do the right work, then you’ll be successful,” she said. “San Diego is definitely obviously given everybody that focus, especially with like us and probably Bay (FC, the other expansion club). But things can happen that quickly, and I’d like to think like if we get this season right, I think we can be successful next season.”

Utah Royals: Starting from scratch

This iteration of the Royals is built purely from scratch, something both Cousins and Rodriguez emphasized. The team inherited zero players and only selected two players in the expansion draft before trading one of them away a couple days later. The player they kept — Paige Monaghan — has been named the team captain.

The other 21 players were acquired through trades, free agency and the draft. Rodriguez believes building chemistry between players on a completely new team is “the hardest piece” of the expansion puzzle.

“Someone told me that it takes 70 sessions for a team to start developing the chemistry within each other. We’re at session number 32, so I told my team we’re gonna have to start doing double days to start getting caught up,” she said. “I think that’s the hardest piece. But chemistry is what’s gonna win a championship, so the quickest team to do that and the best team to do that, you’ll see with the NWSL Shield this year.”

If Utah can figure out their chemistry, don’t be too surprised to see them lifting the shield in October.