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SANDY — As a first-year expansion franchise, it could be said that the Utah Royals took a little time to jell and come together as a team.
The jelling is cementing at a good time, though.
Katie Stengel scored her team-high fifth goal of the season, and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart made the lone goal stand out to help Utah Royals FC keep pace in the NWSL playoff chase with a 1-0 win Wednesday night over the struggling Washington Spirit at Rio Tinto Stadium.
"I’m surrounded by players who have an overall mentality, where everyone is coming in and giving everything they have," said Stengel, who also scored the game-winner in Sunday's 2-1 win at Houston. "We have a mentality where we have to win every game. People are stepping up in the biggest ways.
"Players like (Christen) Press and Amy (Rodriguez) draw so many defenders, and it opens up pockets for everyone else. Everyone is pushing and trying to make a run for the playoffs."
Led by former BYU standout Ashley Hatch, Washington (2-14-4, 10 points) lost its seventh-straight game, going 11-straight without a win.
Meanwhile, after not winning a game through the entire month of July, the Royals (7-6-7, 28 points) have won back-to-back matches in the first two of a three-match span in seven days.
But it might not have happened without Diana Matheson.
Utah held the Spirit without a shot until the 35th minute, and out-shot struggling Washington 7-1 in the first half. But the Royals could only place two shots on frame in the first 45 minutes against a Spirit side that entered Wednesday night winless in 10-straight appearances.
But the expansion side had nothing to show for it, going into the locker room 0-0 at halftime.
Matheson came off the bench in the 73rd minute, replacing starting striker Amy Rodriguez. And with her first touch-that-wasn't-really-a-touch of the match, she set up the goal just two minutes later.
"At that point, I felt that the game was stretching," Utah coach Laura Harvey said. "They weren’t giving us as many one-v-ones, and their ability on the ball to connect is excellent. Once we got the goal, to give Christen a bit of a breather was nice to solidify the midfield."
Taylor Lytle drove a cross toward the top of the box, and Matheson drew a pair of defenders, then dummied the ball through her legs and into the path of Stengel.
All Utah's top scorer had to do was settle the shot and finish it past Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe for her fifth goal of the season in the 75th minute.
"Diana's just clever," Harvey added. "She sees the game. She understands the game. She understands something as simple as the step-over. You just have to understand the game to do stuff like that."
With the win, Utah moves to fifth place in the NWSL standings — just one point behind Portland for the fourth and final playoff spot with four matches to go. The Thorns (8-6-5, 29 points) also have a game in hand on the Royals.
Orlando (8-6-6) with 30 points.
With three matches in seven days, Harvey elected for a reserve-heavy lineup against the second-worst team in the nine-club NWSL. Among the usual starters that began the match on the bench were center back Becky Sauerbrunn, winger Diana Matheson and midfielder Katrina Gorry.
Sauerbrunn entered the match as a substitute for Christen Press in the 80th minute, marking the first time in her six-year NWSL career that she has been involved in a substitution — both entering and exiting — during a game.
The Royals host Seattle in a doubleheader with Real Salt Lake beginning at 1:30 p.m. MT. The game will precede RSL's 8 p.m. MT kick against the Montreal Impact.