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SANDY — Chicago spoiled the Utah Royals’ first-ever home game back on April 14, a 1-0 win for the Red Stars that ultimately led to the expansion franchise missing the playoffs in the first season on the Wasatch Front.
It was time for a little payback.
"I think all things considered, we owe them a bit of a beating," Utah winger Kelley O’Hara said in the week leading up to the match. "So hopefully that happens on Saturday."
Katie Stengel and Amy Rodriguez each scored a goal, and Utah rallied to claim a 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars in the home side's season finale in front of 11,851 fans Saturday afternoon at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Katie Bowen and Taylor Lytle each added an assist for the Royals (9-7-8, 35 points), who earned their first-ever win over the Red Stars in the franchise’s brief history.
"It was awesome. I was ready, and Taylor played a perfect ball on a platter," said Stengel, who won the club's golden boot award with six goals on the year. "It felt great to finally get a win with this team. We’ve worked really hard, and to end this season on a high note felt really good."
Sam Kerr scored for Chicago (9-5-10, 37 points), registering her league-high 14th goal on the season to give the Red Stars a 1-0 halftime lead. Kerr finished a cross from Rain Gilliland in the 39th minute with her head to put the Red Stars on top. The Australian international all-but wrapped up her NWSL Golden Boot title with the finish, having a one-goal lead on North Carolina’s Lynn Williams prior to the match.
What a goal by @UtahRoyalsFC's Katie Stengel to put the home side in front in their season finale.— KSL SportsBeat (@kslsports) September 8, 2018
Catch the finish on @KSLcom and the KSL TV app right now: https://t.co/GKYElUJJp0pic.twitter.com/FPG87IELVV
The first half wasn't good enough, Utah coach Laura Harvey told her team during the locker-room break. So she did something she doesn't always do in the heat of an emotional game.
She got mad.
"I said ‘it’s got to be better.’ And they responded," Harvey said. "Whether it was me getting mad or not, I don’t know. But I think the crowd helped with it. When we play well, they respond to that and give you that extra boost."
Rodriguez pulled one back in the 55th minute, poking home a cross inside the far post to bring the Royals level at 1-1. The U.S. international pounced on Bowen’s cross from just outside the box and put a well-placed shot with the edge of her boot inside the far post for the equalizer.
Stengel nearly pulled Utah ahead moments later, but her punch from in front of goal was deftly saved by goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher as Utah pushed for the go-ahead goal.
But that wasn’t the last contribution from Utah’s leading scorer.
Becca Moros set up Lytle for the go-ahead goal, and the winger from Las Cruces, New Mexico, delivered a pinpoint cross into the box that found Stengel in the 64th minute.
All Stengel had to do was finish for her ninth goal of the season, and the club's first win against the playoff-bound team.
Chicago nearly equalized in the 78th minute, but goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart’s fingertip-save on Yuki Nagasato’s close-range shot kept Utah in front.
"They were one of the teams that we’ve struggled with all season," Stengel said. "It's nice to come out and put a good performance together. To end the season on a much higher note than we started is the point of the game."
Saturday's crowd had the most fans to watch the Royals play a match since the club's first-ever home game. It also cements the team's average attendance as the second-best in the nine-team National Women's Soccer League, trailing only Portland, which averages more than 15,000 fans per match.
"This place gets rocking when we are playing well, and we need to give the crowd more of that," Harvey said. "It's hard to describe what that feels like at the end, when they are all doing the Icelandic clap. I stand there for one second, and think ‘Wow, I get paid to do this.’ But you only get that if you work hard, and you don’t get anything for free in this league."
The Royals announced their inaugural team awards for the 2018 season following Saturday’s match.
Team captain Becky Sauerbrunn was named the club’s most valuable player. Sauerbrunn was the first player signed to the Royals after Hansen announced the NWSL’s newest expansion franchise back in November.
Rachel Corsie also earned team co-defender of the year, bolstering the team’s back line after signing as a free agent in March. The Scottish team captain helped the club to nine shutouts and a 0.96 goals-against average, while also picking up two NWSL Save of the Week honors.
Brittany Ratcliffe’s goal on the road against North Carolina was named team goal for the year. The young forward who played collegiately at Virginia had just two goals on the season, but her road goal in June handed the Courage their only loss of the regular season.
The Red Stars will face league-leading North Carolina at 1 p.m. MT Sunday, Sept. 16. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Utah's inaugural season ends with a fifth-place finish, two points behind Chicago for the final spot in the league's four-team playoffs. Chicago, which defeated the Royals 2-0 in the Windy City, will play at top-seeded North Carolina in next week's NWSL semifinals.