HERRIMAN — In the 79th minute, the Utah Royals got away with one —pulling Chicago’s Casey Short down as she made a run to the back post on a free kick without a call being made.
Six minutes later, Short showed why Utah was willing to take its chances. Short rose up high to meet a long cross into the box and headed it into the back of the net to give the Red Stars a 1-0 win over the Royals Sunday at Zion’s Bank Stadium in both team’s final game of the preliminary round of the NWSL Challenge Cup.
Utah (1-2-1, four points) will await Monday’s final games to see what the team's seed will be when the tournament enters the knockout rounds. The quarterfinals begin on Friday.
“It was such a great cross,” Short said of the winning play. “We definitely needed that. We were pushing, had a lot of chances. It was great to finally get it.”
After storming out of the gate with two positive results in their first two games of the tournament, the Royals will enter the knockout portion of the tournament searching for answers. Utah has been shut out in the last two games while struggling to generate threatening chances in the final third of the pitch.
“Obviously, (we need) to score,” said Utah’s Vero Boquete, who has two assists and a goal in the tournament. “It’s two games we didn’t score. We have to be calm. We are trying, we are creating, we are shooting; now it’s about confidence. Everything is up to this knockout stage.”
That’s where Utah will hope to end the frustration it’s felt over the last two games. The Royals went with a vastly different lineup up front giving Amy Rodriguez the night off and bringing Boquete off the bench. It was a way to provide rest and see what Utah has with some newcomers.
Arielle Ship had strong moments playing in place Rodriguez.
Ship got into the penalty in the game’s early moment before being draped by two Chicago defenders and being brought down — no call was made. She also had the Royals’ best scoring chance of the night in the first half. On a counter-attack, Ship sped her way through the midfield and then combined with Brittany Ratcliffe on a give-and-go that led to an open shot on net that forced a diving save.
But those chances were few on Sunday for the tournament hosts.
“We are frustrated,” Boquete said. “Especially in the first half, we were the better team. The second half, especially the last 15 minutes, it was a bit chaotic with the transition game, and we didn’t feel comfortable with the ball.”
The late-game winner spoiled United States Women’s National Team regular Kelley O’Hara’s return to the Utah lineup. O’Hara, who hadn’t played an NWSL game since July 2019 after missing the end of last season with an ankle injury, came in at the 71st minute.
It was O’Hara who Short jumped over to score the game’s only goal. And while she did produce a couple of crosses into the box late that were threatening, she was mostly ineffective in her tournament debut.
But her presence in the lineup was a still welcome sight for the Royals.
“I think it’s great,” Boquete said of O’Hara’s return. “Personally, last year, I couldn’t play with Kelley at all. To have a player like that (will really help us).”
The help can’t come soon enough for the Royals.