What to expect from the new look Utah Royals and Real Salt Lake in 2024. | Cover Story | Salt Lake City Weekly
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What to expect from the new look Utah Royals and Real Salt Lake in 2024.

The Game is Afoot


  • Cover photo courtesy of Utah Royals

Professional soccer season is back in the Beehive State, and for the first time since 2020, Real Salt Lake isn't the only team in town.

March 16 marked the return of the Utah Royals, a second attempt at an expansion team in the National Women's Soccer League. With RSL having one of the youngest squads in all of Major League Soccer and the Royals sporting a debut squad full of hometown heroes, there's a lot to be excited about.

The Utah Royals are back in action after a cancelled season, ownership change and a move out of state. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • The Utah Royals are back in action after a cancelled season, ownership change and a move out of state.

The Return of Royalty
After a two-season hiatus (and the club being acquired by Lindsey Vonn, Ryan Smith and David Blitzer), the Royals are back in action for the 2024 season. Like so many Utah sports teams before them, the OG Royals were strikingly mediocre in past seasons, finishing dead in the middle of the standings in both 2018 and 2019.

Previous ownership shut the team down in the wake of NWSL's pandemic-canceled 2020 season and allowed the Kansas City Current to take control of the roster. Now, league expansion has made the going a bit tougher than what the Becky Sauerbrunn and Christen Press-led team faced in 2018.

A key holdover from that era is club all-time leading scorer Amy Rodriguez, who will serve as head coach. Rodriguez was a fixture on the U.S. teams that dominated the World Cup and Olympics of the early 2010s. She should have buy-in from Day 1. If the squad forms an identity close to what RSL has built, expect a hardworking, organized team that is solid on defense. The Royals picked up their first win of the new era in a 2-1 rockfight on the road against North Carolina Courage on March 21 after falling 2-0 in the season opener against the Chicago Red Stars on March 16.

Key players
Mikayla Cluff, MF
Hometown: Kaysville, Utah
Previous team: Orlando Pride
Cluff is a Brigham Young University legend who romped through opponents en route to the 2021 NCAA National Championship game. She notched 4 goals and 1 assist across her first two professional seasons in Orlando. Rodriguez may hand Cluff the keys to the middle of the park from the start, though there are other intriguing midfield options on the roster in Frankie Tagliaferri and Emily Gray.

Ifeoma (Ify) Onumonu, FW
Hometown: Rancho Cucamonga, California
Previous team: NJ/NY Gotham FC
Onumonu joins from the 2023 NWSL champions, where she was named to the Best XI second team after registering 8 goals and 4 assists in 2021. The Nigerian international played in all four of the Super Eagles' World Cup matches in 2023.

Kaleigh Riehl, CB
Hometown: Fairfax Station, Virginia
Previous team: San Diego Wave
This is the third time Riehl has been drafted to an expansion team, so she brings an element of experience that is valuable. It's surprising that the Wave let her go after she helped to lead the team to the best regular season record in the NWSL. A nice player to build the defense around.

Key Home Matches
Saturday, May 25: vs. Kansas City Current. Playing our former roster + RSL's long-standing beef with Sporting KC should set up for a nice rivalry with the Current.

Friday, Aug. 23: vs. Bay FC. A chance to measure up against the other 2024 expansion team.

Friday, Nov. 1: vs. NJ/NY Gotham FC. Can the reigning champs do it on a snowy night in Sandy?

NWSL matches are streamed on numerous platforms including ESPN+, Paramount+, Prime Video and the league's own streaming service NWSL+.

Real Salt Lake has seen a lot of turnover on its roster heading into the 2024 season. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Real Salt Lake has seen a lot of turnover on its roster heading into the 2024 season.

The Real deal
Over on the men's side, there's been a ton of turnover at the club since Real Salt Lake were knocked out of the 2023 playoffs in a penalty shootout loss to the Houston Dynamo.

Kurt Schmid has replaced Elliott Fall as chief soccer officer. MLS.com's Matt Doyle notes this is sort of weird because Fall led RSL to the playoffs last season and made the club's record signing of Cristian "Chicho" Arango last summer. The team also kept Pablo Mastroeni on as head coach, but replaced all of his assistants. What can you really make of that?

The roster seems to be in decent enough shape, even after club captain Damir Kreilach left for the Vancouver Whitecaps and the front office sold hot-and-cold winger Jefferson Savarino to Brazil in the offseason.

That has opened up two big salary slots that are still unfilled, though the club did bring in English lower-league legend Matt Crooks, who has started the season strong.

The long and short of it is that RSL has one of the youngest rosters in all of MLS. The players play hard for Mastroeni. Somehow, this team always seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Can they do it again this year?

So far, it's been up and down. The Claret and Cobalt got sauced up by the G.O.A.T. Lionel Messi on the way to a 2-0 loss to open the season on Feb. 21 and drew against St. Louis City SC three days later. They bounced back in a big way with a snow-covered 3-0 drubbing of Los Angeles FC in the home opener March 2.

The momentum appears to have stopped, however, as RSL fell 2-1 at home to rivals Colorado Rapids on March 9. A 2-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps on March 23 has RSL sitting in 5th early on in the Western Conference race.

Key players
Diego Luna, MF/FW
This is a huge season for Luna as he works to earn a spot on the U-23 roster for the Paris Olympics. Luna is as exciting a player as there is in MLS, and he was rewarded with a call up to the U.S. Men's National Team in January. He had a hot finish to the 2023 season and has already notched three assists in 2024.

It seems like Crooks will take most of the minutes at the 10, so Luna will have to cook inverting from the left wing. He's probably the biggest swing player for the team this season, especially since the other key distributor, Pablo Ruiz, is out for the season with an injury.

Cristian "Chicho" Arango, ST
Given that RSL plays a fairly bunkered down style, goals really come at a premium on this team. That puts a lot of pressure on the Colombian 28-year-old Arango, who was named captain before the season.

Arango appears to have a calming presence, and there also wasn't the same zip to the team when he was out injured last season. They need a big year from him to make noise in the playoffs.

Alexandros Katranis, LB
Projecting how a 25-year-old from 14th-placed Poland will do in MLS is never easy, but Real Salt Lake has been desperate for creativity from its fullbacks. Andrew Brody and Bode Hidalgo are fine players for Homegrown guys, but the modern game asks for more punch during build-up than what they've shown. It's not like the team will sink if Katrantis isn't the MLS equivalent of Theo Hernandez, but a forward thinking left back would help jumpstart this team out of the mud.

So far, so good, Katranis notched the winning goal to beat the Whitecaps in Vancouver.

Key home matches
April 13: vs. Columbus Crew. Reigning MLS Cup champs in town. Any chance to watch Diego Rossi play is worth the price of admission.

May 4: vs. Sporting Kansas City. So much history between these teams. The crowd at this game will be jumping.

June 3: vs. Houston Dynamo. Revenge game against the team that knocked RSL out of the playoffs. Mastroeni might be dreading the thought of facing Carlos Carrasquilla again.

Sept. 21: vs. Portland Timbers. Early fall is the perfect time of the year to catch a game, and what better team than the Timbers, who have had a nice start to the season?

Broadcasts of RSL matches are available on Apple TV+, but require an additional subscription to MLS Season Pass