Just four short days removed from a late and very important win on the road against the Houston Dash, Utah Royals FC return to action at the RioT looking to continue their playoff quest and climb up the table. Tonight’s opponent, the Washington Spirit, come into the game in the spoiler role, as their playoff aspirations have already come to an end for this season. What will we see from each team, and how can the Royals pull out a win? Let’s jump in and talk about it!
Utah Royals FC
Sunday’s game at Houston was pretty much a must-win game for the Royals in order to stay competitive in the playoff race, and they rose to the occasion with their 2-1 win. Returning home, they now need to build from that win and see if they can reel off a few wins in a row to get in a solid playoff position. Their next test? The Washington Spirit, who are currently riding a 6-game losing streak and have only scored 1 goal in their last 9 games, according to NWSLSoccer.com. What can the Royals do to win this game?
The first and most important thing the Royals should aim for is to post a clean sheet in this game. URFC has consistently had one of the best defenses in the NWSL this season, and the Spirit come in with the worst offense in the league, having scored only 11 goals in 19 games. Posting the clean sheet, at home, at altitude, against a poor offensive opponent is a great start to getting a positive result. The defenders will particularly want to keep an eye on Ashley Hatch, who leads the Spirit with 4 goals this season.
Offensively, we need to see the Royals continue to develop their creative combining play. The second goal in the Houston game on Saturday, scored by Katie Stengel, capped off a series of passes that showed the team combining creatively. If we can continue to see the players gel like that and create scoring opportunities, we should start to see more goals.
One thing of interest I observed while looking through the statistics in preparation for this article: Of the 16 goals that the Royals have scored this season, only 8 have been scored by those you might consider the “regular starters,” while the other 8 goals have all been scored by substitute players. I’ll just leave that here as food for thought and perhaps we will address it more at a later date. Needless to say, the Royals have a lot of quality players throughout their roster, not just in their starting 11.
The Spirit come into this game having had their playoff hopes this season officially come to an end after a 2-0 loss to the Seattle Reign FC. Through the remainder of the season, they will now have the opportunity to play the “spoiler” role, and begin to work on the start of plans for next season. Through 19 games, Washington has scored 11 goals while conceding 27. Their -16 goal differential is the second worst in the league, ahead only of winless Sky Blue FC.
Some good news for the Spirit is that until recently, they had a lot of players out with injuries, and now some of those players are beginning to see minutes again. Particularly, USWNT foward Mallory Pugh returned and showed the quality she brings to the team. She may not yet be fit to play 90 minutes, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see her come in either at halftime or sometime early in the second half as she works back to full fitness.
The Spirit typically play in a 3-4-3 formation, designed to keep a lot of the contested play in the midfield and then be able to attack quickly on a turnover. If the Royals can break quickly on the flanks when Washington turn the ball over, they should be able to find some open space to operate in. Space is the first ingredient to creative soccer, and I hope to see a lot of open space taken up by the Royals tonight against the Washington Spirit.
Injury Update (via NWSLSoccer.com)
Utah Royals FC
OUT: Alex Arlitt (left knee strain – SEI), Makenzy Doniak (left knee ACL tear – SEI), Mandy Laddish (right hip contusion – SEI), Kelley O’Hara (right hamstring strain)
QUESTIONABLE: Desiree Scott (right quad strain), Elise Thorsnes (left hamstring strain)
OUT: Estefanía Banini (right MCL sprain), Cheyna Matthews (pregnancy), Tiffany Weimer (left knee Baker’s cyst – D45), Kelsey Wys (right knee meniscus scope)
DF: Bowen, Corsie, Sauerbrunn, Moros
MF: Matheson, Labonta, Jonsdottir, Gorry
FW: Rodriguez, Press
Royals’ keys to the match
- Pitch the shutout. As one of the league’s best defenses, it should be a point of pride for the Royals to want to pitch a shutout against the league’s worst offense.
- Find space and get creative! If URFC can find the open space in the field and start to play more creatively as we saw toward the end of the Houston game, we should be able to see them generate good scoring opportunities and hopefully put a few balls into the back of the net.