The Washington Spirit got the 2019 season started with a solid home win, but the job is a lot tougher this week. Utah Royals FC are the opponent, and Laura Harvey’s club should be a far sterner test than Sky Blue FC was. Putting aside the obvious difficulty of going on the road for the first time, and of dealing with a higher elevation, there’s also the fact that Utah has some top-notch players, and finished their debut season with real momentum.
Getting a home win was a positive step last week, but if the Spirit can go to the Wasatch Front and come back with 3 points (especially in front of a crowd rumored to be in the 17,000-18,000 range), the rest of the NWSL will have to take notice.
Key player: Mallory Pugh
Utah may have missed the playoffs last year, but it wasn’t because of their defense. They gave up 23 goals in 2018, only behind North Carolina (probably the best NWSL team of all time) and a strong Reign side coached by Vlatko Andonovski. Tonight, they’ll most likely have the best center back this country has ever produced, another key USWNT starter, and two other first-choice internationals making up their back four. If that weren’t difficult enough, Utah also starts a pair of defensive midfielders that both start for their respective national teams.
In other words, carving out scoring chances is going to be tougher tonight than it was in the opener. That’s where Pugh comes in. Last week, Pugh was a threat throughout: getting an assist on Megan Crosson’s goal, completing 4 successful dribbles, and finding space to run into during spells at all three positions across the front line. The Spirit’s use of the ball and the play of their center backs may have gotten the headlines, but Pugh was their best attacker all night long.
That’s going to have to happen again tonight, because the Royals are going to be a far tougher defense to break open than Sky Blue was last week. It’s not on Pugh to single-handedly carry the attack by any means, but her skill, speed, and creativity make her the most likely spark for an offense that will need to be at its best to get some goals tonight.
Location: Rio Tinto Stadium (Sandy, UT)
Kickoff time: 9:00pm Eastern
Projected Spirit starting 11: (433) - Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Meggie Dougherty Howard, Andi Sullivan, Jordan DiBiasi; Cheyna Matthews, Ashley Hatch, Mallory Pugh
Bench: Shae Yanez, Megan Crosson, Dorian Bailey, Amy Harrison, Rose Lavelle, Cali Farquharson, Arielle Ship
Lavelle is off the injury report, but it seems doubtful that she has more than 30 minutes in her coming off of a foot injury. Various social media posts point to defender McKenzie Berryhill as the player to make way for Lavelle’s inclusion, which will leave the Spirit a bit short-handed in the back. If they have an issue at center back, look for Huster to slide over.
We could well see Harrison replace Dougherty Howard as the no. 8 in the midfield. Dougherty Howard was back at her 2017 best last week, but Harrison is an Australian international for a reason. That’s probably the biggest competition for a starting job at the moment.
Projected Utah starting 11: (4231) - Abby Smith; Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rachel Corsie, Katie Bowen; Desiree Scott, Gunnhildur Jonsdottir; Christen Press, Vero Boquete, Taylor Lytle; Amy Rodriguez
Since Utah had a bye week to start the season, there’s definitely some guesswork here. However, with the Royals having 4 players (Diana Matheson, Brittany Ratcliffe, Sydney Miramontez, and Becca Moros) out with injuries, it’s not all that tricky to sort their lineup out. The question marks are in goal, where Smith and Nicole Barnhart will be battling for the starting job all season, and in the attack. Katie Stengel could get the nod, but whether that would push Rodriguez wide or involve a move to a 442 of sorts is unclear.
The best bet, however, is this group, with Stengel figuring in as a substitute.
Referee: Ekaterina Koroleva
Available TV: NBC Sports Washington Plus (use this channel finder if you don’t know where to find NBCSN’s alternate channel)
Available streaming: Monumental Sports Network, Yahoo (domestic), NWSLsoccer.com (international). That Yahoo link should take you right to the correct page.
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What do we have to say about it?: We exchanged questions with RSL Soapbox, so here are their thoughts on Utah, and our thoughts on the Spirit.
What are you drinking?: Feels like it’s going to be a good evening for a Paloma.
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