Utah Royals FC Defeat Washington Spirit 1-0
The Utah Royals FC defeat the Washington Spirit 1-0 in their 2019 season and home opener. Photo: www.twitter.com/WashSpirit

The Utah Royals FC kicked off their new season at home with a 1-0 win over the Washington Spirit.

Royals come out firing

The Royals, especially Christen Press, started off this match on the front foot. In the 2nd minute rookie Michelle Maemone dribbled the ball about a quarter of the way up the field into the attacking third and passed it to Press. Press took several touches to beat her defenders and created space to take a shot. Her curling attempt narrowly missed the top right corner.

Then, in the 10th minute she stole the ball from the Spirit's defense, beat defender Paige Nielsen in the box, and laid off a pass to fellow Stanford alum Lo'eau LaBonta while nutmegging Spirit rookie and another Stanford alum Jordan DiBiasi. LaBonta launched a low shot into the net that ended up being the game-winner.

Lo'eau LaBonta scored for the Royals in the 10th minute. Photo: www.twitter.com/UtahRoyalsFC
Lo'eau LaBonta scored for the Royals in the 10th minute. Photo: www.twitter.com/UtahRoyalsFC

Goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe was called into action in stoppage time. Veronica Boquete, a Spanish international making her debut for the Royals and her return to the NWSL, slipped a pass to Katie Stengel, the Royals' leading scorer in 2018, inside the box. Stengel faced Bledsoe 1-on-1 but had her shot denied.

In this match USWNT defender Kelley O’Hara made her first appearance of this season after sitting out last week due to an injury. Midfielder Mandy Laddish also played her first minutes in nearly three years.

Spirit had their chances, could not capitalize

However, the Spirit did have a fair share of chances to find an equalizer. In the 41st minute Australian debutante Amy Harrison played a ball between two Royals defenders through to USWNT attacker Mallory Pugh. Pugh was in a great scoring position, but her shot did not trouble Royals goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart much. In the 53rd minute veteran Tori Huster received the ball back after a throw-in and left it for captain Andi Sullivan. Sullivan found herself with some space just outside the box, got past one Royals defender, and took a shot that went wide.

Another great chance presented itself in the 76th minute when DiBiasi was fouled near the box. Halftime substitute Rose Lavelle took the resulting free kick that barely missed the top left corner. Eight minutes later, she passed the ball to Pugh who ran with speed toward the left post as two Royals defenders were chasing. Pugh took a shot that was blocked by Barnhart.

The Royals outshot the Spirit 11-6 and had twice as many shots on goal (4-2) and corners (6-3). However, the Spirit did have the edge in passing accuracy (84.9%-82.7%), possession (52%-48%), and duels (34-28) and tackles won (10-7).

The Utah Royals FC (1-0-0) travel to Orlando next Saturday, and the Washington Spirit (1-1-0) have a bye week.