Utah Royals stumble in Challenge Cup, fall 1-0 to OL Reign on stoppage-time goal

Utah Royals FC defender Madeline Nolf, left, battles with OL Reign midfielder Shirley Cruz, right, during the first half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Herriman • After two gutsy showings in the preliminary round of the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, the Utah Royals FC finally had a game where they weren’t themselves. They didn’t win the shooting battle. They didn’t finish chances. Their decision making was suspect.

And with just one game left in the tournament’s preliminary round before the knockout rounds, it might have been the best time for that kind of performance.

“This was definitely an eye opener,” Royals defender Elizabeth Ball said. “I’m glad it happened now instead of in the quarterfinals or semis or finals.”

The Royals failed to score for the first time in the tournament. And for the first time, they ended up on the losing side after a 1-0 loss to the OL Reign on Wednesday at Zions Bank Stadium. It was Reign’s first goal and win in three games of the tournament.

The goal came from Bethany Balcer in stoppage time on a header. She received a perfect floated cross from Yuka Momiki, who came off the bench in the 81st minute.

“It was just a good first contact and it was a great ball in,” Ball said. “We just needed to be tighter.”

Utah had showed how much it has improved defensively since giving up three goals to the Houston Dash in its tournament opener. But so far, it’s come at a cost of scoring just once in the last two games for a team that wants to be known for finding the back of the net.

But the Royals doesn’t think the defensive emphasis is what has led to fewer goals.

“Today, we didn’t create too much,” midfielder Veronica Boquete said. “It’s not about that the forwards were not good. I think the team, we didn’t find those spaces, we didn’t combine enough and we didn’t move the other team around. That helped them to defend.”

OL Reign midfielder Shirley Cruz, right, kicks the ball as Utah Royals FC defender Rachel Corsie (2) looks on during the first half of an NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match at Zions Bank Stadium Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Herriman, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Royals went undefeated in their first two games of the tournament. They mounted a comeback and tied the Dash in their tournament opener, and beat Sky Blue a few days later in a low-scoring affair. And despite a shortened timeline to prepare for the tournament, the chemistry among the players has developed quickly.

But that doesn’t mean failing to score Wednesday and ultimately losing the game wasn’t difficult for Utah. Coach Craig Harrington pointed to some of the decisions the team made as one of the biggest issues.

“I think also we made some really individual errors with where we passed the ball, decisions that we did on throw-ins, decisions that we made on clearances, that didn’t help our cause,” Harrington said.

For Ball, the loss may have had less to do with tactics on the field and more to do with mentality.

“We definitely know we need to come out way harder and we need to just have that mindset that we’re going to fight and win,” Ball said. “They brought a whole different level than we’ve played against so far. Their aggressive mentality was something that we tried to match. But I don’t think we did well enough.”

Utah plays the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday at 8 p.m. for the final match of the preliminary round.