In just a few short months Utah Royals FC rookies Kate Del Fava and Tziarra King have made a name for themselves in the National Women’s Soccer League, complete with their own Stan accounts on Twitter.
The rookie duo played a combined 385 minutes through five matches in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret, with Del Fava starting three of them as part of the squad’s newly-implemented three-back system.
King headed her way into fan’s hearts in the first match of the tournament when she scored the equalizing goal against Houston Dash, making her one of just a handful of players to score in their rookie debut in the history of the league.
On the other end of the field Del Fava quietly made her mark, playing on the backline to defend her way to beat out most of the other 180 athletes competing in the tournament in several categories. The Wisconsin native registered 14 interceptions and 12 aerial duels won, good for the second and third-most in the league.
“It’s really exciting, this is something we have been preparing our whole lives for and to now say that it’s here and has happened is pretty surreal,” King said.
“For sure, I agree with what ‘Z’ said, at the end of the day all we wanted was to be able to come in and prove that we belong, and it feels like we have started to do just that” Del Fava said.
With their relative success in the Challenge Cup it's easy to forget how their professional careers began, in many ways it is the truest Cinderella story. It’s no secret that this year has carried rather unique challenges and just like the rest of the world, the sports community was hit hard with the harsh reality of what everyday life looks like in the midst of a global pandemic.
While the sports community worked through the transition into the new normal there is a group of individuals who, having zero prior experience, walked into their first year as professional athletes without any guide book for how to navigate these circumstances, including Del Fava and King.
On top of moving to a new state and establishing themselves within the club, the rookies were tasked with getting to know a new coaching staff and a whole new crop of teammates, a task that would prove to be difficult in just a few days.
With only four training sessions under their belts, the world shutdown, practices were halted and the team was sent into quarantine.
But unlike the rest of their teammates who returned to team housing, players across the league who were not yet under contract were sent back to their respective hometowns, including Del Fava and King.
“It was a struggle,” King said. “It was awful,” Del Fava shared at the same time. “We were not sure if we would even get to go back out to Utah at all in 2020, it was a question of if and would we be ready if the time came,” Del Fava said.
While the team returned to individual and eventually small group training, Del Fava and King were left to motivate themselves, spending hours alone at their local fields and old high schools, putting in the work to make sure that if the chance came they would be ready.
Luckily for them the chance did come and they were reunited with the rest of their teammates in preparation for the Challenge Cup.
With the format of a tournament placed in a short amount of time it was likely that many players would see the pitch for Utah, including the two rookies. When the first match came neither Del Fava or King knew quite what to expect having been told that they would be coming on as substitutes, but nothing could prepare them for the moment it happened.
Remarkably, the two debuted in the same match, albeit to staunchly contrasting situations. When Del Fava entered the game Utah was down 2-1 and as part of the defense her role looked different to that of King who came on just minutes later with yet another goal for Houston to add to the deficit.
“I was so nervous, I was going into the back line and my only thought was ‘God Kate don’t screw this up’ because as a defender it’s our job to just keep it calm,” Del Fava said. While King countered with, “It was a bit of a low pressure situation for me, coming on as a forward it didn’t feel make or break on my shoulders, so for me it was a little more of ‘Let’s go get it’”
It was after the two entered the match that the team was able to rally and come from behind to tie the game, complete with a goal from King in the 89th minute.
What came next was what can only be described as a picture perfect moment. Almost as quickly as the ball hit the back of the net Del Fava appeared into frame, the first one in the arms of King to celebrate.
While the match didn’t end till several moments later, the image of two rookies standing underneath the goal embracing one another is one that signifies the end and the beginning of a chapter for Del Fava and King. Side-by-side for nearly six months they have walked through circumstances only shared by one another, finally putting an end to what was the longest waiting period, and in the same breath kicked off what is sure to be extraordinary careers.