SANDY — Earlier this week as Utah Royals FC spent a few days in Seattle before playing the Reign on Wednesday, midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta was joined by some family members who had made the trip from California.
As it turned out, LaBonta ended up playing a different role than usual, as she was in head coach Laura Harvey’s starting lineup at central midfielder instead of on the substitute list and played until the 77th minute before being replaced by Katrina Gorry as URFC was hunting for a goal in a game it lost 1-0.
“It’s always great to be in the (starting lineup),” she said Friday after training. “You work hard every day in training like everybody else does, sometimes even do extra, so it was great to finally be rewarded for that and get playing time, just having fun being out there with the girls.”
While the 25-year-old LaBonta had started for Harvey early on in the season, Wednesday marked the first time she had done so since her younger brother Kalaukoa passed away unexpectedly in late April.
As detailed in a 2014 San Francisco Chronicle story while LaBonta attended Stanford, her mother was not around much during her formative years, leaving her father Mark alone to care for her and her brother, who went by Koa. As such, Koa became Lo’eau’s “everything.”
But while she has grieved over his loss, she said soccer has served as an escape.
“Soccer is a huge distraction,” she said. “It helps me when I’m on the field in all aspects of life. When I walk on the field, that’s all I focus about, is soccer, and then obviously when you walk off you think about it more, but soccer’s been a huge distraction, help, everything. It’s kept me fit, kept me motivated. It’s the best thing that could possibly happen to me right now in this situation.”
That doesn’t mean that Koa is too far from LaBonta’s thoughts, however. She’s long held a tradition of writing her dad and brother’s birth dates on her arm before games, and now she adds Koa’s name across three of her knuckles on her hand. Additionally, she had his name sewn on the inside of her jersey, right on her heart.
In May, she posted a photo on social media of her hand with Koa's name written on it and captioned it, "hermano, yo juego para ti," Spanish which translates to, "brother, I play for you," and added a heart.
Harvey praised LaBonta both for the way she played Wednesday as well as for the manner in which she’s carried herself throughout the season.
“I think credit to her, everything that’s gone on in her life, you wouldn’t know,” Harvey said. “I think that’s the best compliment I can pay her, is you just wouldn’t know. Whether it’s been not starting, obviously with the passing of her brother, she’s just never stopped working, never stopped giving everything, and obviously got a reward on Wednesday with the start. She’s just a vital part of the team.”Comment on this story
Given that Wednesday was LaBonta’s first start in a few months, it’s unclear what her role will be Saturday evening as URFC faces the Orlando Pride at Rio Tinto Stadium, but she said the squad is ready to get back in the win column after dropping two straight games, the club’s first-ever losing streak.
“I think we’ve kind of taken a positive outlook on this, and we’re just like, ‘Alright, now we really have to bring it, show out,’” she said of a contest that will air on ESPNews. “We just really are down to bring it right now.”