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LaBonta's goal leads Utah Royals FC to 1-0 win, vital 3 points in home opener

(Silas Walker, KSL)


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SANDY — Utah’s newest professional soccer team, Utah Royals FC, remembers last year’s inaugural home game.

Everything was going perfect: the picturesque weather. The sellout crowd of just over 19,000 fans. The post-game concert by pop star Rachel Platten. The "welcome to NWSL" message by the league, the local community and even non-soccer fans across the Wasatch Front.

And they even remember the result: a disappointing 1-0 loss — a loss that, while not the sole reason, could’ve kept the club out of the postseason by season’s end when they finished two points underneath the playoff line.

So Saturday’s home opener for their sophomore season was, in many ways, a second take.

Action.

Lo’eau LaBonta scored a goal just 10 minutes into the match, U.S. international Christen Press supplied the assist, and Utah overpowered the visiting Washington Spirit for a 1-0 victory Saturday night in front of an announced crowd of 18,015 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

"I think the focus was how many people can we get to our stadium and who is performing our national anthem," said LaBonta, who scored her first goal since joining the Royals last year upon the collapse of FC Kansas City.

"This year, we cut all that out. We need to focus on us. The pressure is on us to do well. We still have so much to work on. But to get the result is huge for a home opener, and hopefully to bring back all these fans."

Nicole Barnhart made two saves to earn the shutout for the Royals (1-0-0, 3 points), including a stop with about seven minutes left in regulation to keep the clean sheet.

The goal was a big moment for LaBonta and the Royals. But it capped an energetic opening 15 minutes, where Utah looked like the team that iced New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC in the opening week — even though that was Washington’s role. The Royals out-shot the Spirit 3-1 in the first 10 minutes, ended the first half up 5-2 and finished with 11 total shots to Washington’s six.

“When one team has had a game and one team hasn’t, it would be easy to let them control the game,” Utah coach Laura Harvey said. “We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to take control of the game. We wanted to dictate tempo. We wanted to put them under pressure.

“I feel like we did that in the first 15 minutes. I then think they started to settle into the game a little bit, and we allowed them to do that. But we tweaked our shape a little it, and that helped us to be more solid.”

But it was more than that for Utah, which had a bye in the opening week of the season. It was hustle. It was energy.

It was an intensity that seemed different than the first five matches of the inaugural season when the Royals opened with four draws and a loss and barely missed the playoffs.

Tonight was different — namely, that it ended with three points.

Utah Royals FC defender Kelley O'Hara (5) takes a shot on goal against the Washington Spirit at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 20, 2019. (Photo: Silas Walker, KSL)
Utah Royals FC defender Kelley O'Hara (5) takes a shot on goal against the Washington Spirit at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 20, 2019. (Photo: Silas Walker, KSL)

"The biggest positive is the result," Harvey said. "I think that the first game in this league is always difficult because the intensity is so different from preseason.

"Obviously scoring early helps. And thankfully having a win and not feeling like we played great is arguably the best feeling. Then you can go away, look at it, and be critical of yourselves — try to make sure you to adapt to be better for the next game."

Press nearly doubled the advantage in the 70th minute. But the American striker's shot from inside the 6-yard box was easily snatched by Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe. She nearly did it again just three minutes later, fending off two defenders before her touch from close-range sailed just high of the crossbar.

The Spirit almost pulled one back themselves to equalize in the final 20 minutes. But second-half sub Rose LaVelle’s free-kick attempt from the edge of the penalty box kissed the crossbar as it sailed high.

Nine-point weekend

The Royals' 1-0 win capped off a three-win weekend for the Real Salt Lake pyramid.

In addition to RSL’s 3-0 win at FC Cincinnati on Friday night, the club’s second-division Real Monarchs topped San Antonio 3-2 Saturday afternoon in Herriman.

Former Syracuse High standout Kyle Coffee, who was drafted by Real Salt Lake and assigned to the Monarchs, scored the game-winner in the 72nd minute at Zions Bank Stadium.

It was the first nine-point (or three win) weekend in organization history.

Up next

The Royals hit the road April 27 to face U.S. star Alex Morgan and the Orlando Pride at Orlando City Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. MT.

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