'That one was the most emotional for me’: Why Makenzy Doniak's goal in Utah Royals' 2-0 win was so special

(Scott G Winterton, KSL)

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SANDY — Makenzy Doniak has scored a lot of goals in her life.

From 64 of them at the University of Virginia to four of them with the Western New York Flash in her first professional season to seven while on loan with Adelaide United in Australia’s W-League to an innumerable amount growing up in Chino Hills, California, the 25-year-old forward is used to finding the back of the net.

But when the Utah Royals FC winger found herself on the edge of a counter attack, holding the ball in the offensive third in the final moments of a 1-0 match against the Orlando Pride, she looked as if she didn't quite know what to do with it.

Doniak received the pass from Lo'eau LaBonta, dribbled around two Pride defenders, and staggered before she rushed towards goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer. As the keeper came off her line, Doniak slotted a ball through her legs, then simply watched as the shot swished the netting — clinching a 2-0 win that propelled Utah (4-1-1, 13 points) to the top of the league table.

But that goal wasn’t just about the team. It was about Doniak, who spun around, raised her arms to the sky, and greeted her onrushing teammates in jubilation.

A few tears were shed in that post-goal mass of humanity.

For the Royals, it was the first multi-goal game of 2019. A team that has surged from outside the playoffs to the top of the league in the first third of the season was seemingly unable to net more than one marker in its first five matches of the season. The hex was broken last Saturday.

But for Doniak, the goal meant so much more.

"Out of my whole soccer career, of all the goals I've scored, I feel like that one was the most emotional for me," Doniak said after the match. "The injury. Getting traded. The road to get here was really hard.

"I feel like it was a little bit of a reward for my hard work. I’ll never forget that goal or that feeling."

And for good reason — that was Doniak’s first goal in NWSL play since Oct. 2, 2016. Since then, she’s gone on loan to Australia during the league's offseason, returned to camp with North Carolina, and almost immediately tore her anterior cruciate ligament, suffering a season-ending knee injury that ended her time with the Courage.

It’s been a long journey back for Doniak — and she’s not just talking about the 2,166-mile trip from Cary, North Carolina, to Sandy.

"The work to get here was really hard," Doniak said. "It meant a lot to me. I'm really happy, and I feel good. I’m proud of the team, and just in good spirits."

North Carolina traded Doniak to then-expansion club Utah Royals FC the next season, acquiring the rights to former U.S. international Heather O'Reilly in the process. Doniak, still hobbled by her recovery and unable to play at all in the 2018 season, packed up her belongings and headed west.

Utah coach Laura Harvey immediately put the forward on the injured-reserve list. But when Doniak arrived in town, she told her she had big plans for the forward.

Heal up. Get ready. The Royals are going to need you, she said at the time.

But in Doniak’s first trip to North Carolina since the trade, she struggled. It was hard, making the travel-squad roster, and doing so against her former club. It was even more difficult, when she played the final 17 minutes, entering as a substitute for starter Becca Moros.

After the match, Harvey took Doniak aside in the locker room for a long conversation. The forward explained emotions to her manager, and the two-time NWSL coach of the year told her forward to trust the process. Your time will come.

"We traded for you for a reason," Harvey recalled of the conversation.

"I think you saw the elation in her when she scored. I think that last week was a big turning point for her, mentally. She went out on the field today, put absolutely everything out there, and got her just reward. You saw from the players’ reactions as well how happy they were for her."

Amy Rodriguez, who scored the other goal for the Royals, was one of those teammates. Last year, she was in Doniak’s shoes — returning from a traumatizing ACL injury — but with the added "bonus" of having recently made a return to form after pregnancy and childbirth, as well.

It’s impossible to fully comprehend another’s injury, their trials and struggles, as they seek to come back into a career after everything is taken away.

But Rodriguez understands Doniak's journey as well as anyone can.

"Year one post-ACL was tough," she said. "It's about finding your footing again, getting reacclimated with your team, finding your teammates. Makenzy was where I was at last year, but I think she’s done great throughout our preseason. She looks strong.

"It was great to get a goal tonight. It was kind of a reward for all her hard work."

It's impossible to know for sure, but the goal probably wouldn't have meant as much for Doniak in a different setting — say a loss, or a last-second equalizer.

Instead, it was a second goal, and one that clinched a victory for the NWSL-best Utah Royals.

Ever the team player, that context mattered for Doniak, whose team heads to Washington next Saturday to face former BYU star Ashley Hatch and the Spirit (4-1-1, 13 points).

"The work to get here was really hard," she said. "It meant a lot to me. I'm really happy, and I feel good. I’m proud of the team, and just in good spirits."

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