The Washington Spirit’s first road game of 2019 didn’t quite go as they’d have liked, as Utah Royals FC emerged 1-0 winners before a crowd of 18,015 at Rio Tinto Stadium tonight. Lo’eau LaBonta’s 10th minute goal turned out to be a game-winner, though USWNT attackers Christen Press, Mallory Pugh, and Rose Lavelle all had chances of their own.
Utah, who were the odd team out during the NWSL’s opening weekend, came out with plenty of intensity, high-pressing the Spirit relentlessly. Christen Press ended up firing a shot over the bar in the 3rd minute as a result, and Vero Boquete forced a turnover from the ensuing goal kick that forced Aubrey Bledsoe off her line to claim.
The Spirit started to show more comfort passing through the pressure, but the Royals turned their tactic into a 10th minute goal. Paige Nielsen’s pass to the right was poked away by Press, who then rounded Nielsen to get into the area. Press couldn’t turn to face goal due to a crowd of Spirit defenders, but she still had room to lay the ball back to LaBonta, who picked out the lower corner from 16 yards to make it 1-0.
Washington had a response, with Mallory Pugh serving in two crosses in short order, the second of which somehow evaded a lunge from Jordan DiBiasi. The ball ended up going out to the left, where Tegan McGrady served it back in, only missing Ashley Hatch’s run by inches.
Utah’s high pressure continued to be the game’s major development, but the Spirit were able to create sporadic chances. Amy Harrison, in her competitive debut, slipped Pugh in behind Utah’s defense in the 41st minute, but Pugh opted for an early shot that Nicole Barnhart handled with ease.
Utah reminded the Spirit of their attacking threat straight from the goal kick. A quick sequence saw Gunnhildur Jonsdottir peel out to the left before playing a low cross from the edge of the box. LaBonta, again unmarked, arrived late, but could only shoot over the bar after McGrady applied last-second pressure on the ball.
Washington brought Rose Lavelle in for Cheyna Matthews at halftime, and though Utah continued to press, the Spirit began to find a few more openings in the Royals’ half. Still, with Utah midfielder Desiree Scott in fine form, genuine chances were few and far between. A 68th minute corner kick from Pugh was glanced on dangerously to the back post, only to float just wide, while Hatch pleaded for a penalty kick in the process.
Utah had been unable to create anything in quite a while, but a 71st minute surge forward by former Spirit striker Katie Stengel nearly killed the game off. The Spirit collapsed on Stengel, but she still managed to get the ball to Press. The USWNT attacker was in a dangerous spot and had time to turn and shoot, but fortunately her effort was right at Bledsoe.
Press fired over two minutes later, but the Spirit weren’t giving up just yet. A service from Tori Huster found Jordan DiBiasi, who was barged into by Becky Sauerbrunn. Referee Ekaterina Koroleva had a tough call to make, as contact may have started inside the box, but she opted to award a free kick inches outside instead. Lavelle stepped up to take it, beating the wall but shooting just over the crossbar in the 76th minute.
The Spirit’s best chance of the night came in the 85th minute. Lavelle, playing as a false 9 after Hatch had been subbed off for Megan Crosson, drove right at the heart of the Utah defense. The Royals started to get numbers close to her, but that just opened an angle to pass to Pugh inside the box. At an angle, Pugh tried to shoot low and at the back post, but her shot was kick-saved by Barnhart.
Stengel thumped a diving header right at Bledsoe moments later, before Lavelle had a shot deflect off a defender and right into Barnhart’s hands in the 89th minute as the game became a bit stretched. Utah probably should have put the game to bed shortly after the beginning of stoppage time, as some magic from Press and Boquete tore open the Spirit defense. In alone, Stengel tried to side-foot the ball past Bledsoe, but Bledsoe read her intentions to make the save.
Unfortunately, the Spirit couldn’t mount any final attacks, and Utah effectively killed the game off in the corner to hand Washington their first loss under Richie Burke. After a bye week, the Spirit will be back in action on Saturday, May 4, as the host Reign FC at 7:00pm.
NWSL regular season (Game 2)
Utah Royals FC 1 (LaBonta 10)
Washington Spirit 0
Utah - (4312): Nicole Barnhart; Katie Bowen, Becky Sauerbrunn (C), Rachel Corsie, Michelle Maemone (Kelley O’Hara 61); Lo’eau LaBonta (Mandy Laddish 79), Desiree Scott, Vero Boquete; Gunnhildur Jonsdottir; Amy Rodriguez (Katie Stengel 59), Christen Press
Spirit - (433): Aubrey Bledsoe; Tori Huster, Paige Nielsen, Sam Staab, Tegan McGrady; Amy Harrison (Meggie Dougherty Howard 63), Andi Sullivan (C), Jordan DiBiasi; Mallory Pugh, Ashley Hatch (Megan Crosson 78), Cheyna Matthews (Rose Lavelle 46)
Utah - None
Spirit - Matthews 26