Utah Royals battle to 1-1 draw with Portland Thorns in final home game of 2020

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Royals FC goalkeeper Abby Smith (1), Utah Royals FC defender Taylor Leach (24) and Portland Thorns FC midfielder Lindsey Horan (10), collide as they go for the ball, in soccer action between Utah Royals FC and Portland Thorns FC at Rio Tinto Stadium, on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020.

From hard tackles to the energetic challenges to the goal-line saves to the goals themselves, Utah Royals FC’s collective mentality Saturday never said die.

The Royals wanted to make the most out of their last home game of 2020. They wanted to put on a show for the fans at Rio Tinto Stadium after getting to play in front of them only twice all season.

The Royals did just that. They brought the energy and effort against the Portland Thorns that resulted in a 1-1 draw in front of 1,905 fans.

“I think tonight, in our last game of 2020 at home, we really wanted to show our heart on the field and put everything we had out there,” forward Amy Rodriguez said. “We really are hanging our heads a little bit by getting the draw. But at least we can walk away knowing that we left out it all out there. We left it all out on the field for sure.”

Utah played back-to-back games at home in front of more than 1,000 fans. Last week, it played in front of 1,302. Coronavirus restrictions dictate that a maximum of about 5,000 people are allowed inside Rio Tinto.

A drum corps of about 10 people played throughout the match on the north side of the stadium. They all donned yellow Royals shirts.

Rodriguez opened up the scoring in the ninth minute when she scored off a rebound. Midfielder Vero Boquete switched play to the left side and Lo’eau LaBonta received that pass and took the shot. LaBonta’s attempt was saved, but Rodriguez cleaned it up.

The Thorns answered in the second half on a similar sequence. Royals goalkeeper Abby Smith, who missed last week’s game due to injury, saved a point-blank shot by the Thorns, but Christine Sinclair cleaned it up and tied the game at goal apiece.

The Royals tried furiously in the final 20 minutes to get a second goal. Shots by Rodriguez and defender Katie Bowen were blocked on a recycled corner kick. Rookie forward Tziarra King struck one from the right side from a fair distance, but it skimmed the crossbar.

Rodriguez had another shot in the box in the 88th minute. She was surrounded by defenders and didn’t get much speed on it, making for an easy save for Thorns goalkeeper Britt Eckerstrom.

King had a diving attempt just before the final whistle, but it was saved by Eckerstrom.

Utah outshot Portland 18-14, but shots on target were even at five apiece. The Thorns outmatched the Royals in pass accuracy (80.4% to 70.6%) and possession (58.9% to 41.1%).

Former URFC defender Becky Sauerbrunn started Saturday and played 69 minutes. She was traded in the offseason for Elizabeth Ball and allocation money.

The Royals came in to Saturday’s game without a win in the Fall Series. They lost 3-0 to the Thorns before drawing 2-2 against the OL Reign last week in their first game at Rio Tinto in 2020.

“We definitely had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Rodriguez said when asked what the difference was between Saturday and the previous game against Portland. “We wanted to come out and prove what we could do.”

Interim coach Amy LePeilbet said she implemented some tactical changes against the Thorns this time around that helped get a different result. She said she tweaked the formation to make more like a 4-2-3-1 and focused on attacking the Thorns through the wide channels, connecting passes through the midfield and changing the point of attack.

The Royals are still winless in the Fall Series and have accrued just two points, but that was enough to put them in seventh place above the Orlando Pride and OL Reign. The Thorns, meanwhile, tied the Washington Spirit for leaders in points with seven.

The team with the first, second or third most points at the end of the series gets to donate $25,000, $15,000 or $10,000, respectively, to the charity of their choice. Utah still has a mathematical chance to reach third, pending other results.

The Royals have two weeks between games. They play Oct. 17 on the road against the OL Reign.