NWSL Season Preview 2024: Amy Rodriguez set to lead Utah Royals in its return to the big-time

Utah Royals FC enter the league as an expansion side in 2024 led by one of its former players, Amy Rodriguez, who will lead the club in its second chapter with the NWSL.

Orlando Pride v San Diego Wave FC
Orlando Pride v San Diego Wave FC / Joe Scarnici/GettyImages

Royalty has returned to the NWSL. The second iteration of Utah Royals FC is alive and well. After years of hibernation following a cease of their operations in December of 2020, that familiar red, gold, and blue is a part of the league once again.

Led by former Royal Amy Rodriguez, and the ex-Reading sideline leader Kelly Cousins, Utah wasted no time assembling its roster in the offseason. Before the expansion draft even commenced on the night of Dec. 15, the Royals had acquired 12 players, five more than the other new club to the league, Bay FC at the time. The foundation of this side is built off of league experience and a chunk of players who call the state of Utah their home.

"I’m so excited to see Royals 2.0,” Rodriguez stated in her first press conference as the new Royals leader. “This time, we’re going to be better than ever. Realizing what they’re trying to do here made me so excited and it made my decision easier. I love to win. If I can instill that here and bring a championship, that is my goal.”

It was a far different way to build a roster than the Northern California outfit. Cousins focused on bringing in established NWSL talent rather than recruiting from outside leagues. Don't get me wrong, they did add a few players set to debut in the NWSL, but the majority of the roster is made up of rookies and players we've seen find success in this ultra-competitive transitional top-flight league.

Midfielder Mikayla Cluff was the first incoming for the Royals, joining just four days after the NWSL Championship at Snapdragon Stadium. The club agreed to a trade with Orlando Pride to secure the Kaysville native's services, sending $90,000 in allocation money and expansion protection to the Florida outfit. She is one of six current Royals who used to don the colors of a college program within the state of Utah.

The defensive unit includes one of San Diego Wave's consistent starting center backs from 2023, Kaleigh Riehl, and a player who slotted nearly everywhere across the KC Current back line last year, Addisyn Merrick. Utah looked to Europe for some midfield depth. In early January, the Royals added Swede Agnes Nyberg, and Dutch youngster Dana Foederer from Fortuna Sittard.

Both midfielders were regulars in the season before jumping over to the North American top flight. It'll be quite interesting to see how these two U-24 players adapt to the NWSL. How quickly will it happen? Could one of them find a starting spot before the conclusion of the campaign? We'll have to see.

Via the expansion draft, dynamic ex-Racing Louisville winger Paige Monaghan made her way to the "Beehive State" to accompany Nigerian international Ify Onumonu, former Thorn Michele Vasconcelos, and the 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year Imani Dorsey up front. How these players build chemistry in this A-Rod system we have yet to see in action will determine its overall success.

The club's No. 1 overall selection Ally Sentnor brings immense attacking versatility to Rodriguez's system. The 2023 ACC Midfielder of the Year is set to act as a core piece to the Utah project after leading the University of North Carolina in total points last year. We've seen her play as a nine on the youth international level, but that creative attacking midfield position may be how the Royals can get the most out of Sentnor.

Utah Royals FC: Projected starting XI (4-3-3)

Goalkeeper: Mandy Haught

Defenders (4): Kate Del Fava, Addisyn Merrick, Kaleigh Riehl, Madison Pogarch

Midfielders (3): Mikayla Cluff, Ally Sentnor, Emily Gray

Forwards (3): Paige Monaghan, Ify Onumonu, Imani Dorsey

Utah Royals FC Most Important Player: Midfielder, Mikayla Cluff

The club chose to begin its roster construction with the hometown midfielder herself, Cluff. It didn't just do it because she's from the state. Though, that did help.

The Royals want a sturdy midfield spine. Cluff is a player that can aid in creating that stability Utah craves. Her defensive work rate is quite remarkable, finishing 97th percentile for midfielders in the NWSL last season in tackles won per 90 minutes.

The BYU product carries with her incredible positional flexibility, something we saw over the last two campaigns for the Florida outfit. In 2023, in more of a defensive six role, the 25-year-old finished tied for second on the team in total tackles plus interceptions in league play behind former Boston University standout Kylie Strom. Her aerial presence is also something that is often overlooked, and at 5-foot-8, Cluff is on the taller side of Utah's outfield players.

In response to the signing, Rodriguez explained part of the reason for bringing in Orlando's former No. 8.

“When evaluating players, we also put a big emphasis on their character and Mikayla is a great first step in building the culture we want in our locker room. We know how much she is loved in this state, and we can’t wait for our fans to cheer her on in Utah again.”

Utah Royals FC best case scenario for the 2024 season: Finishing outside the bottom-three, establish an identity under A-Rod

Out of the two expansion sides, Utah is the one that should find it much more difficult to get up and running. Even though we know what she stood for as a player, "A-Rod, the professional women's football coach" is a new title. Montoya, Bay FC's leader has been clear about the style of football he wants, but there has been little in-depth description from Rodriguez publicly. Can these experienced NWSL players adjust to the new environment and what the coaching staff is adopting? How do the European additions fit in? What will Sentnor look like in her rookie season? These are all quality questions.

It makes most believe that a finish outside the bottom three would be considered a positive start to the franchise's resurrection. Just two years ago, A-Rod announced her retirement as a professional footballer. Now, after a season as an assistant with the USC Trojans, she is trusted to craft a team identity from the ground up. Due to the mentality she embodied as a player that eventually led to numerous accolades, it doesn't seem likely that she'll fall short in this long-term endeavor.

Current OL Reign assistant Scott Parkinson had high praise regarding the knowledge of Utah's culture creator.

“She’s also not just talk, she gets the game in a way few I’ve ever worked with do. She can connect, inspire. Amy has never rested on her laurels and there is zero doubt that she will succeed as a coach in this league.”


Utah Royals FC projected finish: 14th in the NWSL table

Someone has to round out the table. Results are always viewed as important in this sport, but to Utah, the focus should be more on culture and identity development. While making the postseason as an expansion club has been done prior, the obstacles to reaching that point are quite large. KC Current finished dead last in the league table before it made a run at the championship. Don't be shocked if Sentnor leads all rookies in goal contributions or if Mandy Haught sits atop the league in total saves.

The second iteration of URFC has not been kicked a football yet. Playoff teams are not constructed overnight. It takes time. As they say, "Rome wasn't built in a day."

"The noise doesn’t matter and at the end of the day I haven’t accomplished anything yet, now is when the real work begins," A-Rod explained.

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