SANDY — The Utah Royals were hoping a less hectic preseason would lead to a better start to the season than during their inaugural 2018 campaign. Through one game, the hope is coming true.
The Royals kicked off the 2019 season with a strong defensive performance in a 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit in front of an announced crowd of 18,015 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
They didn’t win their first game until Game 6 on May 5 last season. That difficult stretch included losing the franchise home opener to Chicago, a loss that coach Laura Harvey said still doesn’t sit well.
“Really happy with three points. We’ve said all preseason we wanted to start off results-wise better than we did last year and this was a good opportunity to do that and we did it. A clean sheet is always nice, not conceding goals is a big thing for us,” said Harvey.
She wasn’t pleased with how her team played during long stretches of the match, which she said is encouraging to win despite some struggles.
“Thankfully having a win and not feel like we played great is arguably the best feeling 'cause you can go away, you can look at it and really be critical of yourself,” said Harvey.
The Royals were in the bottom third in scoring in the NWSL last season, but needed just 10 minutes on Saturday to take steps toward increasing that productivity.
Lo’eau LaBonta buried a shot from just inside the box after a great individual effort from Christen Press to give her team the 1-0 lead. LaBonta didn’t score in her eight starts and 16 appearances for the Royals in 2018.
“It’s great for me especially, being on this team and not getting a goal at all last year, it’s definitely going to help me boost my confidence, take more shots, but I think it’s just great to help the team that way,” said LaBonta.
Press played a massive role in LaBonta’s goal with her pressure and skill. She intercepted what should’ve been a routine pass out to the sideline from a Washington defender, giving her a great run into the box from the left sideline.
Washington’s scrambling defense recovered in time to corral Press near the endline, but she continued dribbling and cut the ball back toward the penalty spot. That forced two other Washington players to converge on Press, who looked up to see LaBonta standing unmarked outside the penalty area. Press calmly played the ball back toward LaBonta who ran up and smashed the ball around a defender and in off the fingertips of Washington keeper Aubrey Bledsoe for the 1-0 lead.
“Kudos to Christen, I saw her dribbling everybody and I assumed she was going to shoot but you always have to be ready to score and I was just chilling on the 18 and looking at the spots in the goal. And when she did lay it off I was like, all right, I can place it because everyone was in front of me on the left,” said LaBonta.
Neither team threatened much the rest of the half, but in the second half Utah had multiple chances to double the lead and ease the pressure late in the match.
Even though the final ball never came off, Harvey said that the insertion of Kelley O’Hara, Katie Stengel and Mandy Laddish into the game as substitutes helped the Royals see the win out.
O’Hara is still working her way back to full fitness from an injury, and Harvey praised the effort from rookie Michelle Maemone at left back, especially after she missed training Friday with a fever.
“For a rookie to step into this environment … I thought she did really well for her first game. This league is difficult, it’s so much better than college you can’t even compare. And for a rookie to step in and give the performance that she did, she has to be really proud,” said Harvey.Comment on this story
Saturday was also the first game for new Spanish striker Vero Boquete, whose impact on the match got better as the game wore on.
“We didn’t get her on the ball as much as we’d like to tonight, and we’ve got to try and work a way where we can do that because she’s definitely someone that can unlock defenses. The more we keep working at it, the more we keep playing together, the more that will come,” said Harvey.
The Royals will be back in action next Saturday in Orlando before returning home against Chicago on May 3.