The NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret has presented a unique set of circumstances that led to a multitude of storylines in a short period of time for hosts Utah Royals FC, and in the hustle and bustle of the tournament you may have missed a few.
Welcome to the Desert
In the past 10 days across three matches, five players experienced their first match in a Utah Royals FC jersey playing in their club debuts.
In the first match of the tournament against the Houston Dash, defender Elizabeth Ball got the nod from Head Coach Craig Harrington to start on the backline as an outside back. Since then she has been the go-to pick for that position, having started in all three matches, playing in every single minute.
That same match saw the debut of rookies Kate Del Fava and Tziarra King who both came on as substitutes in the 63rd and 70th minute, respectively. The two rookies have each put their own stamp on the NWSL as King scored the game-tying goal against Houston in the 89th minute, good for her first professional goal in her first professional match. She is the first and only rookie in the league this year to have found the back of the net and one of the few in league history to have scored in their professional debut.
After an impressive outing as a substitute against Houston, Del Fava was selected to start in the second and third match against Sky Blue FC and OL Reign. In two matches she averaged close to an 80 percent passing accuracy rate while also leading her team in duels won and interceptions. Additionally, Del Fava has recorded nearly the most minutes for rookies with 207 minutes played.
Forward Arielle Ship made her club debut against Sky Blue FC when she came on in the 85th minute, replacing Amy Rodriguez.
In the third match against OL Reign the club saw two debuts at halftime when defender Taylor Leach and French midfielder Aminata Diallo entered the match. Leach made several massive defense stops to keep the Reign at bay, including blocking a shot with her face and a sliding block to stop a breakaway towards goal. Meanwhile, Diallo also impressed in her debut, earning a near perfect passing rate while also giving up the fewest amount of possessions.
Leading the Pack
Not only was Utah’s win against Sky Blue FC their first of the tournament and season, it was the first victory for Head Coach Craig Harrington with Utah Royals FC and in the National Women’s Soccer League. Under his leadership the team is averaging just over 12 shots a game, and average nearly three points higher than the team’s average through its first two seasons.
Defender Maddie Nolf got her first start as a member of Utah Royals FC against OL Reign, starting in the midfield for the first 45 minutes of the match. This marks the first significant minutes for Nolf since her time in college. She previously played in two matches for Utah, but has only registered a handful of minutes.
Return to the Pride Land
The first three matches had three major returns for Utah Royals FC with Diana Matheson, Brittany Ratcliffe and Taylor Lytle experiencing their first minutes in a Utah uniform since late 2018. All three missed the entirety of the 2019 while recovering from injuries.
Matheson started in the first two matches and made a big splash in her return, scoring the opening goal for the team on their way to a 3-3 draw with Houston. She also appeared in the third match against Reign as a substitute.
Ratcliffe has started in each match of the tournament, which is just one less start than her than game total from the 2018 season. Lytle also made her return from injury in the Houston match, registering 27 minutes as a substitute.