This is not how Craig Harrington envisioned his dream job.
When the 37-year-old Englishman signed on to be Utah Royals FC head coach on February 7, nobody could have imagined the way his first season at the helm has been thrown into such disarray. Just two training sessions into preseason, the global pandemic transformed a golden opportunity into chaos.
During the week when the sports world shut down, Harrington met with his staff on Wednesday, had training canceled on Thursday with the plan to return to the field on Saturday. He wouldn’t have his full team in training until 84 days later on June 2.
Now with the start of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, just days away, the focus has shifted from “How are we going to get through this?” to “How are we going to win this?”
“It was tough to digest”
Upon Harrington’s arrival in Utah, he knew he would have to hit the ground running. With just a few months between his arrival date and the opening of the 2020 NWSL season, he had a limited amount of time to instill his vision for the club in his first season with the Royals. He got started by appointing Amy Rodriguez as captain, replacing the departed Becky Sauerbrunn, who held the post for the club’s first two seasons.
With a bevy of high-caliber attacking options in Rodriguez, Christen Press and Vero Boquete, he wanted to shift the approach to being a higher-scoring team that utilized those pieces in dangerous positions on the field.
On the opening day of preseason, optimism was beaming through the new coach and throughout the Royals roster.
Two days later, everything changed.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much, but upon reflection, to get going and then come to an absolute grinding halt and then having so many uncontrollables was tough to digest,” Harrington said. “You want to provide the players, the staff, the club with what they need, but we necessarily didn’t always have all the answers as the situation with COVID was constantly changing.”
After a few days to regroup and once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be mere days before the team returned to the practice field together, the approach to training changed. Instead of daily drills and tactical training sessions, Harrington found himself conveying his message over video conference calls and through shared video sessions while the players went through fitness exercises in isolation.
Even through quarantine, the end goal didn’t change, just the method to reaching that goal.
He and his coaching staff were working around the clock to ensure that once they returned to the field, the players would be ready to excel.
That’s not hyperbole, either.
While his coaching staff in Utah worked throughout the day to comb through video clips, meet with players through the computer screen and manage things on the ground, Harrington also had an overnight method to utilizing all of the hours in a given day. Louis Lancaster was still in England, so while the coaches in Utah slept, he would analyze video through the night and send clips that could help the team prepare for the next day’s sessions.
“It’s been challenging, but it’s been something that everyone has embraced and if we want to be successful we have to make the best of the situation that we are in and have confidence in ourselves and our abilities and ultimately the goals and aspirations that we have,” he said. “We have to prepare the players to compete if they have an opportunity, but we also have to be very conscious of everyone’s mental well-being. We don’t have all of the answers right now and everyone is still handling it individually as well as they can.”
Running, Reading and The Office
A family man with a wife and two daughters living in Chicago, where he was an assistant coach with the Chicago Red Stars for the previous two seasons, he also found himself needing new ways to be occupied in the rare moments when he wasn’t immersed in the game.
“The weekends were the hardest part because you just try to leave people alone so they can have time with their families,” he said.
That meant pushups and running to stay fit.
He also watched movies at night – finding himself gravitating towards different themes at different times during his quarantine – and found comfort in ESPN’s The Last Dance series.
On Thursday nights, he would watch Top Chef with his family – utilizing technology to bridge the vast distance between them while sharing family time to maintain some normalcy.
He even watched The Office, finally concluding that the American version of the show is funnier than its English counterpart.
“It’s still not normal”
Once back on the field, most things returned to normal and Harrington and his staff tried to pick up a few steps ahead of where they left off before the team was quarantined.
The differences came in how he interacted with the players and how they interact with each other. A tight-knit group that thrives on its close connections off the field, the Royals players were limited in the time they could spend together for over two months. Roommates could see each other every day, but gone were the morning coffee on the way to training or chat sessions in the locker room that define relationships within a roster.
There also are the masks.
“If this is the new norm, it’s still not normal to us. Wearing the mask, wearing the gloves, social distancing meetings,” Harrington said.
Going through individual sessions first and small group sessions second, the full-team training sessions have been high in intensity and focus.
Little by little, a return date neared and once the Challenge Cup schedule was announced, there was, at last, a destination for the Royals train.
The foundation had been set through the hours of work during quarantine and through each passing phase of training. With a specific target to aim for, the team now could work towards a precise goal.
“We put an onus on the physical components of the game so everyone could come in fit and ready to go. Whenever we were going to come back, we wanted to be able to go at a high level,” Harrington said. “I think the players are proud of where they’re at right now amidst a difficult situation. On the tactical side, we did what we could, but you learn as you go. Overall, I think we were able to set up the players to come in with a really good mindframe.”
The Royals will open their run in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup on June 30 against the Houston Dash at Zions Bank Stadium.
While the quarantine shortened what was already a condensed runway for Harrington to prepare the team to take the field this season, he has leaned heavily on a core of veteran stars to lead a balanced team with several rising talents and a sprinkling of experienced role players. Now with that first match just days away, the question arises if the team is ready to rise to the top in a competitive league.
The answer may not truly come until July 27 when the final is played at Rio Tinto Stadium, but Harrington’s approach assures that Utah Royals FC will always strive to be better than the previous day.
“I feel confident in our group. I feel confident in where we’re going. I’m also never satisfied. I’m never satisfied with myself and I’m never satisfied with the team. We could win 7-nil and I’ll always be looking at things that we could do better,” he said. “In the short term, everyone has pulled together and everyone is doing their best. There’s not much more you can ask a human being to do.”
Wherever Utah lands when the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup trophy is presented, one thing is for certain: Craig Harrington will never forget his first season as Utah Royals FC head coach.