From Pitch to Parenthood: How the Utah Royals are showing that they are “made by women, for women.”

Parenthood. How the Utah Royals are showing that they are “made by women, for women.”

Story by Kenady Clark

Michele Vasconcelos had the next phase of her life planned out.

She had done the work to be drafted in the National Women’s Soccer League’s 2017 class through her contributions to three high school soccer state championships at Alta High School, 30 goals and 27 assists during her D1 collegiate career at Brigham Young University and winning West Coast Conference player of the year in 2016. 

Drafted with the eleventh pick overall, Vasconcelos was headed to the Chicago Red Stars to begin her rookie season. Her life plan was coming together. Until it didn’t.

Shortly after the draft, Michele and her husband, Pedro, were in for the shock of a lifetime. Something that would change their lives forever. 

A positive pregnancy test. 

“I felt a sense of nervousness,” Vasconcelos said. “I didn’t know if I could be a mom and play soccer. I felt that I had just taken a huge step forward to become a professional athlete and felt a little defeated that I had to take a break. As I looked forward in faith, I knew that this was what was supposed to be happening for me, and I felt that I could do both.”

Vasconcelos took her rookie season off and delivered a healthy baby girl before returning to the pitch in 2018. She’s spent the last six years balancing two important roles: midfielder and mom. 

After two seasons as a mom and professional athlete in Chicago, she realized she needed more support to help her dreams stay alive. In 2020, Vasconcelos requested a trade to the Utah Royals to be closer to family. Having a bigger support system close by would continue to help her chase her dreams of professional soccer. Just one month after the trade went through, Vasconcelos and the other players were informed that the Royals were being sold to Kansas City. 

Devastated that she would need to pack up and move her family away from extended family again, Vasconcelos questioned if she should continue her professional soccer career.

“My husband Pedro has always been a huge support next to me to push me along,” said Vasconcelos. “He assured me that we would make it work if I wanted to keep playing. With his support, we took the leap to Kansas City.”

After spending time with the Kansas City Current, playing overseas in Spain, and winning a championship with the Portland Thorns, the now 29-year-old declined her mutual option with the Thorns to sign with the newest expansion team in her home state. This second iteration of the Utah Royals had promised to do things differently. They boldy proclaimed to be a club run “by women, for women.” 

This is the place, and this is the organization, where Vasconcelos felt comfortable pursuing both her family-related and soccer-related goals.

After a forced sale of the organization took the Utah Royals to Kansas City (now the “Current”),  Qualtrics CEO and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and his wife Ashley, along with David Blitzer, Senior executive of the Blackstone Group, acquired Real Salt Lake in 2022, they knew they wanted to bring a women’s soccer team back to Utah. 

“When we acquired Real Salt Lake last year, we said it was a matter of when, not if, the NWSL would return to Utah,” Blitzer said. “This has always been an integral part of our mission.”

These owners believed that the second iteration of the NWSL team in Utah couldn’t go the same way the first did. Key decisions were made with that in mind, including hiring women in key leadership positions.

The club hired former Utah Royals player Amy Rodriguez as their first head coach.  

Just a couple of months later, Utah Royals FC announced that Kelly Cousins, former manager of Reading FC, would be their first sporting director. Additionally, women fill positions such as Team Operations Manager, Player Care and Safeguarding Administrator, Head Athletic Trainer, Applied Sports Scientist, Chief Financial Officer, Social Strategists, and more within the organization. 

When the Royals said their team would be made by women, they meant it, especially when it comes to building the roster.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for the Royals’ new facilities, Smith praised the franchise’s leadership. 

“It’s not a small endeavor,” Smith said. “We are creating a start-up in a league. We are building a new franchise. This has been one of the easiest processes that we have been through. That’s called leadership.”

Balancing motherhood and playing a professional sport is no easy feat. Vasconcelos recalls her daughter, Scarlette, playing with whatever they could find in the weight room in Chicago to help entertain her while Vasconcelos trained. The leaders of the Royals have shown that they mean every word as they unveiled plans for a new training facility. 

The Royals will be the third NWSL team to have dedicated buildings for their women athletes to train in, with Kansas City Current and Racing Louisville being the other two. To further differentiate themselves from these other franchises, the Utah Royals will have a dedicated mother’s room with a space for childcare and nursing mothers. This way, players who have a family situation similar to Vasconcelos’ will not need to use resistance bands to keep their children entertained.

“Utah is setting the standard for the facilities,” Vasconcelos said. “It’s amazing to be a part of this organization, especially as a mom, to see everything they’ve thought of and put in place. They’re putting in a mother’s room with toys. They really went all out for it. It is amazing to be led by Kelly and Amy, who are both mothers and strong women figures to look to.” 

“I’ll just say that at the core of who I am, as a former player in this league, I want to do right by the players and I want to provide them the greatest sports and life experience that they can achieve,” Rodriguez said. “And I think that we have that here in Salt Lake City and with this new training center. … the possibilities and the potential of our players are going to be endless. I just feel so fortunate to be a part of this time where we are pushing boundaries and setting standards for women in sports and soccer in America.”

Popularity in professional women’s sports is rising. The Royals’ staff and players understand the importance of inspiring youth to chase their dreams, and they have integrated the future of the sport into their business model. 

At the Royals’ season opener on March 16, hundreds of young girls came donned in their club team uniforms to watch their new idols fight for the win.

In March 2024, Gold Medal Olympian alpine skier Lindsey Vonn announced an ownership investment in the club. In partnership with her foundation, this investment strives to empower girls in underserved communities. Vonn donates 25 tickets to each Royals home game to girls and is planning a camp for the summer of 2024 to foster confidence in young women.

“I am excited to be supporting women in another avenue,” said Vonn. “This is the biggest and best opportunity I have to support local women. Being able to unite the community and support women is my main mission in life as a retired athlete. Seeing the female-driven staff is a game changer, and I’m honored to be a part of it.”

Vasconcelos is not the only Royals player who understands how important this new iteration of the Royals is to the young women in Utah. “I want to show grit to the girls who watch me play,” Brecken Mozingo said. “I want to show them that they can do anything they put their mind to as long as they are willing to work hard and put everything they have into it.” 

“We are going to go and create and build,” Smith said. “The impact of the work the club is doing will be felt 20 and 30 years down the road. When we think about women’s sports, we’re all the way in. We won’t be halfway in.” 

Scarlett Vasconcelos is now six years old. The first grader loves to read, is learning Portuguese, and often plays soccer with her parents on the field near her home. Scarlett proudly wears her Royals jersey, but no matter the outcome on the pitch, she loves her mom just because she is her mom. 

“It can be a really hard training day, or I didn’t perform in a match like I wanted to, but none of that matters when it comes to Scarlett,” Vasconcelos said. “It is a good perspective and balance for me. Soccer isn’t everything. I can be both ‘Michele the soccer player’ and ‘Michele the mom.’ 

“As women, we sometimes feel guilty for spending too much time in one of our roles. As I realized I can be both a soccer player and a mom, I try to be fully present where I am.” 

As Vasconcelos continues the balancing act between “Michele the soccer player” and “Michele the mom”, she will always inspire Scarlett, the one girl who gets to see Vasconcelos in every role she puts her mind to.

Just like she always planned it.

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