Sandy, Utah — When Utah Royals FC take the field on Saturday afternoon vs. the Chicago Red Stars (3:30 p.m. ET, Lifetime) for their inaugural home game, they will likely do so in front of one of the largest crowds in NWSL history.
A crowd of over 18,000 is likely, with Rio Tinto Stadium only offering standing room only tickets as of Friday. Rachel Platten will sing the national anthem and will also hold a postgame concert after Saturday’s game.
“I’m pretty excited. People around the city already seem to know a lot about the team,” midfielder Diana Matheson said after practice this week. “We’ve got pretty high expectations I think, so hopefully it’s rocking in there.”
“That’s a huge crowd,” defender Rachel Corsie said. “It’s huge for the game, for the league. For this team, I think it’s something that, as players we have a lot of experience across the board who probably have played in that environment before and know how great it can be and how it can be a huge advantage for us to have so many people supporting us. We want to show our appreciation for that and we want to play well.”
Utah comes into the match undefeated after earning draws in their first two games, on the road at Orlando, a 1-1 scoreline, and a scoreless draw at Houston. They scored their first goal in just the third minute of their first game in Orlando on March 24.
Saturday’s home opener is the culmination of a whirlwind NWSL start that began in November when Utah was announced as the newest NWSL team. The announcement came just days after owner Dell Loy Hansen, who owns the Real Salt Lake MLS team, was approached with the possibility of joining the league in the 2018 season.
“They’ve just poured so much into this. We see signs everywhere for Utah Royals FC. We’re on the radio. We were watching the RSL game [Wednesday] night, and they kept mentioning our home opener. I feel like they’re really putting the resources in to get the word out there and I think that really helps. I think the community knows that we’re here. I think Dell Loy has really announced us, that we’re here,” Utah Royals FC defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn said. “That’s new, I guess, a little bit. But it’s also very welcome.”
The roster is largely the core of FC Kansas City players that moved to Utah after FCKC ceased operations — players like Becky Sauerbrunn and Nicole Barnhart. They’ve been joined by Kelley O’Hara, acquired in a trade with Sky Blue FC, internationals like Elise Thorsnes from Norway and Gunnhildur Jónsdóttir of Iceland, as well as players acquired in the Boston dispersal draft — Abby Smith, Katie Stengel and Brooke Elby. They’re coached by Laura Harvey, who left Seattle Reign FC before Utah even joined the league, and was Utah’s first choice as their inaugural head coach.
Utah Royals FC also could get a huge boost on offense in the game with the possible return of forward Amy Rodriguez, who was removed from the injury report on Friday. It could be Rodriguez’s first minutes since tearing her ACL in last year’s season opener for FC Kansas City, which came after missing all of 2016 due to the birth of her son.
Hansen is flying in family members for all the players to watch Saturday’s home opener, with guests expected from as far away as New Zealand, home of midfielder Katie Bowen.
Matheson said her parents, sister and brother-in-law are headed in from Toronto for the game.
“They’re gonna have the yellow shirts. They’re going to be rocking the yellow in the stands with everyone else. I think it’s going to be incredible with all the families in the stands. It’s probably a totally unique situation — in this league, I think for sure,” she said.
Because of the fast timetable, international duty, and the road games to start the season, some players said they hadn’t had too much time to see much of Utah, but had staked out the most important places.
“The mountains and the nature,” Matheson said when asked her favorite part of Utah. “Everyone is very friendly in this whole state, bar none, so far as I can tell. And we’ve found some good coffee shops, too. So far, so good.”
Goalkeeper Abby Smith was one of the players to arrive first in Utah, in early February following the Breakers dispersal draft in late January.
“I’ve loved it,” Smith said of her time in Utah so far. “It’s amazing. On the field and off the field, everybody’s been really nice and supportive. The fans have been incredible and it’s hard to have any kind of complaint. This [practice] facility is unbelievable. The facility at the stadium is unbelievable. They’ve really taken care of us. We don’t have to worry about anything besides being a soccer player. That’s what we’re here for, but it’s not that way in other places.”
Players said they’ve felt the excitement around town in Utah ahead of Saturday’s game.
“It’s kind of like we’re the new kid on the block. Everybody wants to see, ‘Who’s that?’ or ‘This is the Utah Royals FC. They’re new in town.’ We’re starting to get a little bit more recognition, now that RSL, they’ve started and been going a little bit. Now that it’s our turn to have a home game, they’re really pushing for us,” Smith said.