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Defining moments: Utah Royals FC’s 2019 season, part II

We’ve selected the 10 moments that defined URFC’s season. This is part two, moments 6 through 10.

Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

We selected the 10 moments that defined URFC’s 2019 season. Yesterday, we began with five moments that defined Utah’s first half of the season. Read them here if you missed part one. We conclude today with the next five moments that defined the remaining 2019 season.

#6. The ascent of Lo LaBonta - Cindy Lara

We expected Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez to have good years, and they did. But a player who surprised us was Lo LaBonta. The midfielder scored Utah’s first goal of the season in the home opener win against the Washington Spirit, and when the team overcame a mid-season slump, it was LaBonta who became a key player in the offense.

With so much on the focus on Rodriguez and Press on the pitch, LaBonta was able to free up the space the team needed to be successful in the attack. The team’s chemistry improved as a result, and much of that had to do with LaBonta’s role in the midfield.

#7. Utah beats Portland & Reign FC for first time - Cindy Lara

In 2018, Portland Thorns FC and Reign FC were the teams Utah just could not beat. Utah’s record in 2018 versus Portland came to two losses and a draw, and against Seattle, the same with two losses and a draw. 2019 was a chance for Utah to finally get a win against these two Pacific Northwest teams. The first 2019 meetings against Portland resulted in draws, and Utah lost 1-0 against Reign FC.

In Utah’s mid-season surge in August and early September, Utah was able to finally defeat these two rivals. It would be 3-1 against Reign FC first, with goals by Katie Stengel, Lo LaBonta, and Amy Rodriguez. Then, Utah was finally able defeat Portland 1-0, thanks to a goal from Becky Sauerbunn and six saves from Nicole Barnhart on a Friday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.

#8. A-Rod ain’t scared of Portland - Lucas Muller

The altercation between Amy Rodriguez and Emily Sonnett did not happen because of a single instance; it was a pot that finally boiled over.

The match between Utah Royals FC and the Portland Thorns was one that featured many current and former USWNT players. On September 6, Portland was down 1-0 on the road after a goal through Becky Sauerbrunn, and everyone was thinking about playoff points.

In the 61st minute, Christen Press played the ball over Sonnett with a wonderful bit of skill which leaves her completely beaten. Sonnett then pull Press down from behind and spins her to the ground. She receives a yellow card at that point.

Then in the 77th minute, Meghan Klingenberg attempts to pass the ball back to Sonnett, but it’s too soft. Rodriguez is able to run onto the ball as Sonnett does a poor job of receiving, and once again Sonnett is beat. She employs a very similar pulldown that she used on Press, and pulls A-Rod to the ground. Amy jumps up and shouts to the ref for a card, and rather than give Emily a second yellow, he goes straight red. It doesn’t stop with the card, however. Rodriguez is clearly very mad and gives Sonnett an earful. Sonnett looks frightened, but the realization that her team is a goal and now a player down may be playing into her expression. Both teams converge as Vero gets between the two players and pulls Amy away. Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath are both clearly incensed. Heath starts shouting and gives Vero a shove in the back. Rodriguez is given a yellow, which is odd given she never touched anyone and simply shouted at a player who had just fouled her.

Events didn’t stop there. Just a few minutes later a foul is called against the Royals and Amy, perhaps attempting to waste some time, Rodriguez is standing over the ball. It’s only for a short moment, but Horan runs up and immediately shoves her to the ground. Horan receives a yellow card from the referee and an earful from A-Rod. Utah would go on to win that game 1-0.

In the post match press conference, Rodriguez responded to a question from RSL Soapbox about the interaction with Sonnett, and she explained that passions were high, but she respects the Thorns and Sonnett and they were fine off the pitch.

#9. Becky’s goal - Lucas Muller

The goal heard around the world, as it should be known. Christen Press crossed in the ball from the right side of field, several yards out of the penalty area. The ball hung in the air for several long seconds before Becky Sauerbrunn connects with her head. She doesn’t jump. She’s positioned herself perfectly to meet the ball, in a way a center back of her quality had done countless times, but in this instance, she’s directing the ball towards goal. The ball flies across the face of goal, beating Portland Thorns keeper Adrianna Franch, bounces, and goes into the far corner.

Amy Rodriguez is closest to the ball when it goes in and reacts at the same moment as Becky. A-Rod stretches her arms out in victory as she sprints to pick up the ball. Every other Utah Royals player take a brief moment to react; it’s as if no one was expecting the headed goal in what has been a scoreless deadlock with Portland. Her teammates then mob her; everyone piles on Sauerbrunn to celebrate the invaluable goal, the points it could mean, and the accomplishment from the defender. Becky looks ecstatic.

After the game, Sauerbrunn told RSL Soapbox that she valued the clean sheet more than scoring a goal, but that scoring was icing on the cake. At that point in the season, Utah was fighting for a playoff spot and those three points could mean a lot. Sauerbrunn is a beloved USWNT player, but has never scored for the US. Sauerbrunn last scored in 2017 for FC Kansas City. That goal was also a header that won Goal of the Week. Club goals may be the closest thing we get to witness a Becky USWNT goal, and it couldn’t happen to a better player.

#10. Late season collapse - Cindy Lara

In six games in the summer, Utah composed a record of zero wins, two draws, and four losses, sitting in 7th place, way outside the top 4. As the season headed into the final third of the season, Utah was dangerously close to being eliminated. But something happened in August, it’s as if the team realized that they needed to step it up and continue fighting to save their season. They did, beginning with a 3-0 win versus Sky Blue FC, and suddenly, Royals FC went on a five-game unbeaten streak, which kept them in contention for the race for the postseason, reaching the fourth place spot in the NWSL standings.

It all came to a halt in a 2-1 loss against Houston, a major setback for a team who was desperate to reach the playoffs. The schedule didn’t do any favors either as Utah next faced North Carolina Courage, Reign FC, and the Chicago Red Stars, losing all three games. The 2-1 loss to Reign FC sealed the deal, however. With the loss, Utah fell to fifth place, and Reign FC held the tiebreaker if URFC was to break back into the number four spot.

Utah would only fall to 6th place, though, ending their magical run at a potential playoff spot.