After a disappointing 2-2 result in New Jersey on Saturday that required a comeback from a 2-0 deficit, Utah Royals FC continued their east coast road trip against Washington Spirit. It was stressed all week that this game was a must-win if the Royals were to keep their playoff hopes alive. A win against the Spirit would propel them to fourth place, jumping over Chicago Red Stars and Orlando Pride, at least until Saturday’s batch of games, but it would keep them in contention.
Again, Laura Harvey decided for rotation in her lineup, giving Nicole Barnhart the start over Abby Smith, her sixth start of the season, and starting Katie Stengel at center midfield, who played for the Washington Spirit in 2016 and 2017 before being waived by the Spirit in June of 2017. Kelley O’Hara returned to the 18 for the first time since May 9th after recovering from a right hamstring strain.
Tonight's starting XI in Washington— Utah Royals FC (@UtahRoyalsFC) August 22, 2018
Lineup Breakdown : https://t.co/q1lhKV1VNJ pic.twitter.com/Xzfra3DqfO
From the beginning, tonight felt different for the Royals. With the reality of their season on the line, the Royals attack looked sharper than usual, connecting passes and creating runs down the flanks.
By the 12th minute, the Royals would be up 1-0 after Amy Rodriguez scored the first goal. With a series of passes in the final third, Katie Stengel found Christen Press in the 18 after switching fields with the pass. Press sent a pass to Rodriguez who connected with the ball, and off a bounce from an initial save, she was able to finish for the leading goal, her second goal in two games.
A-Rod pic.twitter.com/iZVLw4xrwT— Utah Royals FC (@UtahRoyalsFC) August 22, 2018
Rodriguez would not be satisfied with the one goal and worked to extend the Royals’ lead in the first half and well into the second half until she was subbed out in the 76th minute.
That 76h minute substitute would be Kelley O’Hara, who made her first appearance, and seventh overall for the season, since being sidelined with a nagging hamstring injury since May.
"Welcome back." ️ @AmyRodriguez8 to @kelleymohara #WASvUTA | #NWSL pic.twitter.com/EwPnylePhY— NWSL (@NWSL) August 23, 2018
O’Hara’s contributions nearly led to another goal for Utah, but they would have to be satisfied with the 1-0 victory, earning three much-needed points, helping them reach fourth place in the league standings, officially jumping over the Orlando Pride and Chicago Red Stars with 32 points and an 8-7-8 overall record.
Utah now goes into a two-week break before returning to Rio Tinto Stadium for the final regular season game against Chicago Red Stars. That matchup could be the one that decides Utah’s fate for 2018 if all the cards fall into place.
Read more on the Royals’ playoff hopes here.