Sandy • Laura Harvey was watching playoff basketball.
Becky Sauerbrunn, Amy Rodriguez and Kelley O’Hara were in their trademark Stars & Stripes, warming up before the U.S. women’s national team’s friendly against Chile at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif. All the while, back in suburban Chicago on Tuesday night, whatever sliver of postseason hopes Utah Royals FC had in its inaugural season, swiftly faded away.
The Royals needed help, and needed it from the worst team in the league. They didn’t get it. The Chicago Red Stars wrapped up the fourth and final NWSL postseason spot in a 5-0 rout of still-winless Sky Blue FC.
“With each goal that Chicago had scored,” said Rodriguez, “it was just a little piece of my heart just falling to the ground.”
The Royals came into the NWSL last offseason with immense hype, backed by an owner who vowed to make his MLS franchise and new NWSL club as equal as possible. They got a $1 million locker room in a soccer-specific stadium where some teams in the league are still changing in trailers. They sold out Rio Tinto Stadium in March in their historic home opener. They had a year filled with injuries and struggles to score goals.
They brought in U.S. national team star goal-scorer Christen Press this summer.
But on Saturday afternoon in Sandy, the Royals will be playing for fifth place, the spot directly on the outside looking in, and already they’re going through the motions of recalling all the points dropped along the way, all those missed opportunities that will eat at them all winter. The home draws that should’ve been wins. The road losses that should’ve been at least a draw. You do this when you have nothing but being on the outside for an entire looming offseason.
“Obviously you want to have your fate in your own hands,” said Sauerbrunn, the Royals' captain, “and so we didn’t get the job done, so we need to take responsibility.”
They’ll be able to take out a portion of their disdain on the team that took that final playoff spot as Chicago visits for the 2018 NWSL season finale Saturday. Chicago, after all, beat the Royals in that memorable home opener back in April. It is, as Sauerbrunn put it this week, “poetic, in like a tragic sort of way.” Tragic that they believed they had what it took to be a first-year franchise with resources and big-name players to make some noise come fall. They came up short.
“It’s miserable, it’s terrible, it just kind of defeating. It sucks,” said O’Hara, who missed a large portion of the season with a lingering hamstring injury. “There’s no other way to put it. Unfortunately, we didn’t do what we needed to do to have it in our hands, and I think that will be a big learning curve for us going forward. And I think it’s something that we needed to maybe have to go through as a team.”
It won’t hurt moving forward, although it hurts plenty now, and will for a while.
The Royals must, however, consistently find the back of the net if they want to be playing for a title in 2019. In 2018, they struggled to do so on a regular basis, one of the primary reasons why they’re not in the NWSL playoff picture. They were shut out 10 times in Year 1, scoring 20 goals in their first 23 regular-season outings.
“I say this all the time: You get what you deserve,” Harvey said. “There were too many times this season that we didn’t put games to bed, and we got [one point] when we should’ve got three, we lost when we should’ve at least tied, they’re the things we have to look back on and be frustrated with.”
“All of us need to take more responsibility in attack about finishing goals,” added Sauerbrunn, “If we add that component to our game, we can be a very good team.”
The Royals will have to settle for what they hope is as close to a capacity crowd as possible, so they can close the season like they ushered it in, only a little differently. They’re established now, determined to be among the NWSL elite, eager to use the struggles of the first year as a learning tool and springboard into 2019 determined to improve, to score goals, to maybe add more star power, to become a destination for women’s professional soccer in the global game.
“Putting on the jersey here was one of my fondest soccer memories,” Rodriguez said.
It is, as Sauerbrunn said, a little tragically poetic the Royals wave goodbye to 2018 like this. But as O’Hara said, too, maybe this is what they needed in order to learn as a group that not everything comes easy. Harvey couldn’t watch the game Tuesday. She instead watched a WNBA elimination game with a trip to the Finals on the line.
“I was on the edge of my seat,” she said.
A trend she must hope her team can replicate come spring.
CHICAGO RED STARS AT UTAH ROYALS FC
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » 1:30 p.m.
Stream » KSL Sports App/NWSL.com
Records » Royals 8-7-8, Red Stars 9-4-10
Last meeting » Chicago 2-0 win (June 23)
About Chicago » Punched ticket to NWSL playoffs with 5-0 win over Sky Blue FC on Tuesday night. ... Red Stars spoiled Royals' inaugural home opener in April by winning 1-0 in Sandy. ... Sam Kerr leads the team with 15 goals and four assists in 2018. ... Former BYU forward Michele Vasconcelos has a goal in 18 appearances this season for Chicago.
About Utah Royals » The Royals are 4-3-4 at home this year. ... The Royals have struggled to score goals in Year 1, notching 20 in its first 23 matches. ... Katie Stengel leads the team in goals scored with five. ... Amy Rodriguez has scored four goals since returning from her ACL injury. ... Utah can play for fifth place in the NWSL standings with a win or draw.