The Utah Royals have their first player, acquiring Mikayla Cluff via trade from the Orlando Pride.

The 24-year-old midfielder is a native of Kaysville, Utah, and played for BYU in college, scoring 53 goals through 93 appearances and finishing as a finalist for the Hermann Trophy in 2021. She already is in her home state preparing for the 2024 NWSL season, which will mark the Royals’ return to the league as an expansion team.

“While I’ve enjoyed my time in Orlando over the last two seasons, I’m extremely excited to return to play in my hometown and bring back this club for the state and for the fans,” Cluff said in a news release.

In the trade, the Royals received Cluff, who is under contract through the 2025 season, as well as the No. 26 pick in the 2024 college draft. The Pride received expansion draft protection and $90,000 in allocation money.

Bay FC and the Utah Royals will have the opportunity to select up to 12 players through the 12-round expansion draft, but the Pride already have acquired protection from both expansion teams.

The original Royals franchise played in the NWSL from 2018 through 2020. At the end of the 2020 season, the team folded, and their players were transferred to the Kansas City Current. Real Salt Lake owners David Blitzer and Ryan Smith are reestablishing the franchise.

Cluff played for the Utah Royals FC Reserves in 2019, making 12 appearances and scoring eight goals in the amateur team’s inaugural WPSL season. In her time with the Pride, Cluff had four goals through 40 appearances.

“We’re so excited to welcome Mikayla back to Utah,” Royals head coach Amy Rodriguez said in a news release. “A player who has had so much success in the state at both the collegiate and high school level and has now shown to be an excellent NWSL player. She offers versatility in the midfield, which is so valuable in an expansion year.

“When evaluating players, we also put a big emphasis on their character and Mikayla is a great first step in building the culture we want in our locker room. We know how much she is loved in this state, and we can’t wait for our fans to cheer her on in Utah again.”

Since joining the NWSL in 2017, the Orlando Pride have had a tenuous foothold on the NWSL standings. Despite initially fielding a splashy lineup featuring players like Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Marta, Orlando could never quite get the results to match the potential of its assembled roster.

A high coaching turnover rate affected consistency, and the team slid toward the bottom of the table, finishing last in 2019. In the years since, Orlando has had stretches of positive results but has still struggled to compete by the end of a punishing NWSL season.

Recently, Orlando’s philosophy toward roster-building has shown a marked change from the top-heavy investment of the team’s early years. Under new head coach Seb Hines, the Pride have compiled a young core of developing players through the draft and free agency, allowing the club to put roots down before beginning to grow into a playoff contender. The question in 2023 is whether the team can contend this year, or if they’re stuck building for the next version of the future.

2022 review: Getting stuck in

Despite renewed expectations, Orlando’s 2022 season started with middling results, as the occasional attacking fireworks couldn’t quite make up for their struggles on defense. The Pride would gut out a win one weekend, and then give up four or five goals to their next opponent.

The inconsistencies weren’t relegated to on-field performances. Head coach Amanda Cromwell was suspended in June (and later expelled from the league) amid an investigation for possible retaliation, and Hines was given interim control of the team midway through the 2022 season.

Despite adversity, the Pride also proved themselves resilient in the second half of the season. Orlando pulled together a five-game unbeaten streak in June after Cromwell’s suspension, becoming a stuck-in group that was very difficult for opponents to break down. While the Pride didn’t always play the prettiest soccer, they did stop the bleeding that plagued them at the beginning of the season.

But working primarily without the ball has its costs, and at the end of the season, fatigue set in and the club struggled to implement tactics that went further than stopping the opposition. A few multi-goal losses to opponents at the top of the table, like OL Reign and Portland, firmly ended Orlando’s dream of a playoff surge and relegated the club to a 10th-place finish in the 2022 standings.

Last year, Orlando became more of a proof of concept than a fully realized soccer team, defined more by how they could frustrate other teams than the strengths they brought to a match themselves.

Second-round pick Messiah Bright could end up being the steal of the 2023 NWSL Draft. (Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

Offseason moves: Building a new future

After a season of ups and downs, Hines began to further compile the young group the Pride believe can carry the team for years to come. Orlando was reportedly in the running for top free agent Debinha, but even after losing out to the Kansas City Current, the Pride front office continued to look for ways to solidify their core.

Orlando targeted talent in the draft, bringing in Emily Madril (No. 3) to partner with Megan Montefusco in the central defense and picking up underrated playmaking talent in the later rounds. Midfielder Summer Yates (No. 39) can create havoc in an NWSL midfield, and forward Messiah Bright (No. 21) could be the steal of the draft after Orlando grabbed her late in the second round. In free agency, the Pride signed Brazil forward Adriana to add extra firepower to the attack.

The Pride will also benefit from the return of legendary Brazilian playmaker Marta, who missed almost all of the 2022 season with an ACL tear. Marta brings both quality to the attack and veteran experience that will help Orlando’s young group learn the standards of the professional league. She will help make up for the loss of forward Darian Jenkins, who announced her retirement in January.

Seb Hines begins his first season as Orlando's permanent head coach. (Courtesy of the Orlando Pride)

2023 outlook: Don’t overthink it

Perhaps for the first time, Orlando appears to be building a real foundation for the future, but their success this year will depend on how the coaching staff adapts to the team’s skill set. The midfield is still unbalanced, with more attacking midfielders than players who excel at off-the-ball defensive positioning. Mikayla Cluff is ready for greater midfield responsibilities, but she’s a forward-pushing midfielder, as is rookie Yates. The Pride can’t spend too much time trying to possess through the middle of the pitch if they want to find immediate success.

The good news for Orlando is that they don’t necessarily have to aspire to possession-based soccer when it makes more sense to play direct. With a number of quality options along the frontline, the Pride can play through their forwards while providing a level of defensive coverage they might not have had before.

Orlando’s ceiling will depend on the team’s ability to move the ball quickly and to absorb pressure. Madril and Montefusco will have to build chemistry quickly, with the hope that players like Ally Watt and Julia Doyle will be able to pounce on quick-trigger opportunities on the other end.

Ultimately, the Pride could be written off as a work in progress for the future. But many great clubs in the NWSL’s history have found ways to turn positive play into results by not overcomplicating the task at hand, and a little confidence for a team in transition could go a very long way.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

The Orlando Pride exploded in the first half get past the North Carolina Courage 2-1 on Wednesday.

North Carolina is still down several key players to injury and COVID-19 protocols, which led to the postponement of their game against Gotham last week. The Pride also shuffled their lineup to allow for some players to get some rest.

Sydney Leroux got things started in the fourth minute off a deflection from a shot by Mikayla Cluff.

The Pride have now gotten a goal within the first five minutes in both of their regular season road games. The other early goal also came from Leroux, in the third minute against Angel City FC.

“It’s huge,” Cluff said about the early goals. “We talked about the big moments in the game and the times that we let them get shifted. The first five minutes of the game is some of the biggest parts. So it’s nice when we’re able to come out and get a strong start.”

The Courage had chances throughout the first half, but it was the Pride who managed to double their lead in the 44th minute. Cluff found the back of the net this time, scoring her first NWSL regular-season goal.

Several more chances for both teams came in the second half, but the Courage didn’t record their first shot of the half until the 75th minute. Eventually, in the 85th minute, they got one as Brianna Pinto brought the team within one.

The Courage wouldn’t find the back of the net again, however, and have yet to win a game in the regular season. Orlando, meanwhile, sits in second place in the league, two points behind San Diego, which sits atop the standings.

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who signed a contract extension with the team Thursday, faced 10 shots and made one save in the game.