After the shock: The inside story of how Laura Harvey became Utah Royals head coach
It had only been a matter of hours since Laura Harvey accepted her new job, yet there she was, at the home of her former boss, about to have dinner, just as she had number times before.
The previous week had been a whirlwind, seeing Harvey jet from her Seattle home to vacation in Hawaii before heading back for an unforeseen trip to Utah. She was on the beach when she got the call, and in the days following Thanksgiving, she’d be flying back to Salt Lake City before a scouting trip to Orlando.
I came from Salt Lake 48 hours later thinking, ‘I don’t think I can walk away from this.’
For months, Bill Predmore had known. The Seattle Reign owner knew the only head coach his team had ever employed would be moving on. What he didn’t know until hours before that dinner was Harvey’s destination.
After five years in Seattle, and a departure that saw her linked with U.S. Soccer and the England women’s national team, Harvey was joining a potential National Women’s Soccer League juggernaut, the newly founded Utah Royals. And at some point in 2018, in the visitor’s technical area, the Reign icon will make her return to Memorial Stadium.
“This came about very last minute,” Harvey concedes, speaking to FourFourTwo shortly after being introduced as Utah’s head coach, ”but once I had conversations, it felt like it was something I couldn’t turn down.”
Two months prior, nobody knew that she would end up back in the NWSL so quickly -- Harvey included. It is one of the more remarkable hot-stove stories in the league’s five-year history.
“I understand that [Reign fans] might think it was some conspiracy around it,” Harvey says, speaking to the mystery that persists about her Seattle departure, “but it completely doesn’t.”
“When [the Reign] released the information to the fans, it was sincere and completely true. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had no idea.”
At one time, she had a U.S. Soccer job on the horizon. FourFourTwo has covered that before, but for whatever reason, that situation changed after Harvey formally left the Reign. With her professional life in limbo, the England job came into focus, and she appeared to be the favorite. But when Harvey was approached by Dell Loy Hansen, owner of MLS’ Real Salt Lake and the then to-be-named Utah Royals NWSL side, the FA’s next round of interviews were still more than a week away. Who knew when England would make a final decision?
Once Harvey visited Salt Lake City, England didn’t matter. Having fallen in love with life in the U.S., her leap back “home” was always going to be hard. And in Utah, she saw an opportunity she just couldn’t turn down.
“When Dell Loy rang me, I was putting a surfboard in my car in Hawaii,” Harvey remembers. “I was on vacation. I was completely in switched-off mode, and my phone rang. It was a number I didn’t know, so I answered it, and Dell Loy just … ran. He literally ran at me for 20 minutes. I was completely taken aback. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about for the first five minutes, and then things started to sink in. ‘Oh, he’s talking about the NWSL.’
“After getting off that call, I was like, this guy’s invested, not just financially, but emotionally,” she said. Four days later, she was on a plane to Salt Lake City to tour facilities and meet with management.
“I came from Salt Lake 48 hours later thinking, ‘I don’t think I can walk away from this.’ ”
Ruling out conspiracies amid a rapid turn of events
How Harvey ended up with her once-in-a-lifetime chance will never sit well with Reign fans, a feeling that speaks to the deep and unique bonds she formed in Seattle. Some still suspect something more nefarious. To the disbelievers, the sudden departure and apparent cover stories hinted the relationship had fractured. Why else would Harvey leave what seemed like a perfect fit with Predmore?
The explanation seemed too simple to be true.
“I don’t think anyone believes, or should believe, that I knew that the Salt Lake thing was going to happen, because I didn’t think they knew it was going to happen,” Harvey insists.
In truth, Harvey’s path out of Seattle likely began in January, when she coached U.S. Soccer’s women’s under-23 team and accelerated her relationship with the federation. Come late spring, informal conversations had began about her future with the program, leading U.S. Soccer, this fall, to seek permission from Predmore to talk to Harvey. By the end of the NWSL’s regular season, Harvey’s potential resignation was being discussed, and by the time the NWSL final was settled, so was Harvey’s future.
The Reign needed answers she just couldn’t give, and in her heart, she felt it was time to move on.
“I just felt it was the right thing with the Reign, with everything I had going on in my mind,” Harvey says. “I didn’t want the club to wait and see on me. I did feel that, a little, looking at something new was the right thing, for me.”
Over the next month, Predmore and Harvey pursued the only person they wanted to carry on her work: former FC Kansas City coach Vlatko Andonovski. The courtship would take a month, with Andonovski having to balance other options with a pre-planned family vacation. With the USL season soon to end and the Houston Dash’s open job looming, getting Andonovski locked up was the Reign’s top priority.
On Nov. 8, the Reign announced Andonovski and Harvey’s departure simultaneously, even though the Reign had known about Harvey’s decision for a month.
“I actually resigned from the Reign in early October, and we announced it when we did because it was the right timing,” Harvey says.
“Vlatko is one of the best coaches I’ve ever played against and one of the best people I have ever spent time with in the game. In my opinion, they have what is needed for the club.”
Two weeks after Andonovski was announced, Harvey’s Salt Lake option surfaced, even if it surfaced through an unlikely source. As Real Salt Lake’s braintrust firmed up its interest in the NWSL, flying from Utah to Portland to New York and Chicago to do so, a day-long meeting at Providence Park pushed one coaching candidate to top of its wish list.
From the opposite side of an oft-contentious Seattle-Portland rivalry, one that’s occasionally left Harvey infuriated with the owner to the south, Merritt Paulson had become a fan of the long-time Reign coach. When it came time to recommend a direction for Utah, the Thorns’ owner was unabashed in his praise for a rival.
“My good friend, Mr. Merritt Paulson, was a huge advocate for me getting the job,” she concedes. “I have huge respect for Merritt. What he gives to the women’s game, financially and emotionally, he’s obviously super-invested.”
From those Portland meetings to Harvey accepting the job, the process took less than two weeks. The day after Real Salt Lake had made its women’s team official, Hansen was on the phone with Harvey. Three days later, she was in Utah, and two days after that, she was at the Predmores, having already told her former boss she’d be unexpectedly returning to the NWSL.
“Honestly, that was a hard conversation to have with Bill,” Harvey remembers. “Me and Bill are super close. I owe a lot to him, and I will never, ever take that back.
“But he understood. He totally understood the situation, because he was so in the loop as to everything that had gone on. He got it. I don’t think he was super pleased about it, but he understood it, and I can’t thank him enough for that.”
Timing is everything: The ‘swap’ which nearly wasn't
The remarkable part of Harvey’s move is not that she landed in Utah. Early in this process, that became the likely result. No, the most remarkable part of her move is the timing, and how close two coaches were to remaining with their previous squads.
Had Harvey never gotten interest from U.S. Soccer, she might not have risked moving on from Seattle. Had Real Salt Lake’s interest in the league come two weeks sooner, word gets out to Andonovski, two-time league champion FC Kansas City’s only coach, who then has a reason to move with his players to Utah. And if that happens, Harvey’s resignation with Seattle likely never becomes official, and she’s left choosing between the England job and the Reign.
Given her affinity for life in the States, there’s every chance Harvey would have stayed in Seattle.
“I love living in the U.S.,” she says. “That was a huge driver for me, too. I enjoy my life here, the lifestyle ... It just suits me.
“I’m super happy that I’m able to continue working over here, at the highest level; especially now in a city where … I love to ski. I’ve been able to do that loads in Seattle, and it seems like it’s even better [in Utah]. I’m super happy about that. I’m in a new city, and I love adventure.”
It’s one of many reasons Harvey thinks she’s in the right place. Seattle needed something “new,” she insists, and perhaps the same is true for Andonovski’s old squad, which missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
In her new home, Harvey has a chance to work with the likes of U.S. co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, improve on a roster that was hamstrung by a penny-pinching budget, and leverage the resources of one of the best-run franchises in Major League Soccer.
“The way this league works, I don’t believe that blowing anything up and starting again is going to get you success immediately. You have to build on what you have.”
The combination of the talent in place and Utah’s resources leave many wondering how high Utah can fly in its inaugural season. The roster Harvey’s inherited missed the playoffs by eight points, but it did so while foregoing the international player market and losing it’s only reliable goal-scorer, U.S. international striker Amy Rodriguez, 51 minutes into the season. Utah should be a playoff contender from day one under Harvey.
The league is also a better one with Andonovski and Harvey, two of its premier coaches who just happened to switch places.
“If you had to describe the NWSL, this would be it,” Harvey says. “It’s nuts … You can’t write the script for this league, which is why, honestly, I love it.”