Utah Royals lose 2nd straight game as Challenge Cup moves to knockout rounds

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Utah Royals FC goalkeeper Abby Smith (1) as the Utah Royals host Sky Blue FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Saturday, June 30, 2018.

Herriman • The Utah Royals have a lot to think about in the time between now and when the quarterfinal round starts in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup.

The Royals lost their second consecutive game Sunday, 1-0, after giving up a late goal to the Chicago Red Stars. As if that weren’t bad enough, Utah failed to score in the second straight game after netting four goals combined in its previous two games — three in its first game alone.

“We are frustrated,” Royals midfielder Veronica Boquete said.

As the tournament moves from Herriman to Sandy and into Rio Tinto Stadium next week, the Royals find themselves with only four points, tying them with four other teams — including Chicago, which was in dead last heading into Sunday.

Chicago’s Casey Short found the back of the net in the 85th minute off a cross from Savannah McCaskill. It was a sequence indicative of Chicago’s second half, which saw the Red Stars create many more opportunities than they did in the first 45 minutes.

It looked eerily similar to the stoppage-time goal Utah gave up to the OL Reign: a cross that was finished with a header.

“We have to check and we have to correct that because obviously it’s hurting us,” Boquete said.

The Royals had some chances too, but they were mainly in the first half. The best of them came on a pretty give-and-go sequence between forwards Brittany Ratcliffe and Arielle Ship, who replaced captain Amy Rodriguez in the starting lineup. In transition, Ship passed to Ratcliffe on the right channel, and Ratcliffe gave it right back to Ship in space.

Ship put good strike on the ball, but Red Stars goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher — also the starting keeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team during their World Cup run last summer — timed the shot well and saved it.

Royals goalkeeper Abby Smith, who started her third game of the preliminary round, saved what surely looked like a goal just before the halftime buzzer.

The result for the Royals likely puts a hole in the sail of a team that felt good after two positive results at the start of the tournament. Royals coach Craig Harrington said Saturday that he was pleased with the first three games from this new team.

“I think we’ve seen some really good spells during each game,” Harrington said. “The things exciting me is that we’ve created chances in every game.”

Harrington said after Sunday’s game that the result “stings.” However, he still felt proud of the group’s performance.

The Royals had a win, draw and loss in the previous games. The final contest before the quarterfinal round was one that was important to the team not only to put themselves in a better position entering knockout play, but also to regain their mojo after coming off a tough loss less than a week ago.

Now the Royals will have two days off of training after not having much rest between games. The Red Stars, on the other hand, had six days of rest before facing the Royals. That could have come into play late in the match.

While the loss hurts, it’s not the end of the world for Utah. Every team in the tournament gets a guaranteed appearance in the quarterfinal round because the Orlando Pride had to withdraw from the tournament.

Harrington said Saturday that it would not have mattered if the Royals won or lost the first four games because they still get a chance in the knockout rounds, and that’s where Utah needs to be peaking.

Boquete said the most pressing area Utah needs to address is, simply, “to score.” But also, a little self-belief would help as well.

“I think we have to be calm,” Boquete said. “We are trying, we are creating, we are shooting. Now it’s also about confidence.”