SANDY — The North Carolina Courage came into Saturday having scored six goals in two of their last three wins. They used Crystal Dunn, one of the United States' heroes at this year's World Cup, as a second-half sub.
Simply put, they didn't need a lot of help. The Utah Royals gave them plenty anyway.
URFC defender Becky Sauerbrunn made one thing clear following Saturday's match: “We gave away the game.”
The Royals lost 3-0 to North Carolina at Rio Tinto Stadium. The scoreline reflected dominance from a team that is, well, used to being dominant.
North Carlina came into Saturday’s game having won five in a row and putting up big numbers in the process. Scoring is what the Courage do — but you won’t really find an impressive goal from Saturday's win.
The first: a Samantha Mewis penalty kick after Sauerbrunn committed a foul in the box in the 29th minute.
The second: a long Jaelene Hinkle cross in the 65th minute that got too close to the frame but Royals keeper Nicole Barnhart let slip through her hands into the goal
The third: a Débora Cristiane de Oliveira goal in the 70th minute after Barnhart played a poor pass right to NC’s Crystal Dunn who quickly passed it into the box for the easy Cristiane de Oliveira goal.
Three mistakes. Three goals. Three lost points.
“I don't think we've seen mistakes like that turn into goals,” URFC defender Mallory Webber said. “We’ve seen the mistakes, but they haven't caught us. And tonight, we felt them all. So it's definitely frustrating. Especially to a team like that.”
And with the Royals being the middle of a tight playoff race and now having just three games remaining, they felt them that much more.
It wasn’t just those mistakes that cost the Royals, though. They struggled to build offensively, letting possession go in the attacking third and rarely getting a clean look on goal. Even when they forced Courage keeper Stephanie Labbe to make save, it usually wasn’t a tough one.
URFC’s best chance came on a Christen Press corner kick in the opening minutes of the second half when Sauerbrunn put a stong header onto frame but couldn’t beat Labbe.
The ensuing chaos in front of the net eventually led to another URFC corner. The Royals opted for a short corner on that attempt and immediately turned the ball over.
That was how the match went for Utah. A couple good passes here, a few good moments there, only to give away the ball.
“Every time we felt that we were getting a little bit of momentum, we will just give the ball away,” head coach Laura Harvey said. “And that's just not who we are.”
Especially not who they have been with Press in the lineup.
Since getting back from the World Cup, Press has ignited the Royals attack. Her ability to breakdown defenses almost singlehandedly has pushed Utah into a playoff position.
But there weren't many magical Press moments on Saturday. With her dealing with a knee injury, she wasn't able to fully train leading up to the game. That, Harvey said, may have played a role into the Royals offensive struggles.
But while the Royals left Rio Tinto feeling they had gifted the Courage a win, the loss may not have been as crushing as they believed.
Up in Tacoma, Washington, Reign FC lost to Sky Blue FC. That result means that Utah is still tied with Reign for the final playoff spot.
The Reign and Royals play on Wednesday in Washington.