SANDY, Utah – When a team as talented as Utah Royals FC plays like they did on Saturday night, it’s difficult to be too disappointed with a point at Rio Tinto Stadium. This is, after all, a squad that features luminaries like Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara, a returning Amy Rodriguez, Canadian standouts Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott, as well one of the NWSL season’s early top imports, Icelandic international Gunnhildur Jonsdottir.
Portland Thorns FC, however, carried decidedly mixed emotions out of the Royals’ home venue. Despite scoring one of their most well-cultivated goals of the season, Portland was held to their second consecutive 1-1 draw, with Rodriguez’ early second-half opener allowing Utah to collect their fourth draw of the season.
“The first half was a fantastic first half on the road against a very good team with a lot of talent on the field,” head coach Mark Parsons said, electing to focus on the positives in his initial postgame remarks.
His optimism wasn’t without reason. The Thorns forced six corners in the first half, with three of those restarts coming in the half’s final 10 minutes. Before that spell, Christine Sinclair, Midge Purce and Ana Crnogorčeviç saw chances from dangerous areas blocked, with Lindsey Horan adding to the blocked-shot brigade on one of the period’s late corners.
“We had probably the highest amount of corners in a half that we’ve had, and I’ll bet we had a lot more final-third entries,” Parsons said. “We just couldn’t create the chance or take the chance, but playing the game and managing the game we did in the first half was really, really strong.”
Eight minutes into the second half, though, the game changed, with the Thorns conceding what Parsons called a “random” goal. Pressuring defender Kelli Hubly, Rodriguez was able to win the ball at the edge of Utah’s attacking third and dribble in on Britt Eckerstrom. The Thorns’ goalkeeper’s sprawling attempts to claim possession ended with her grounded near the penalty spot, allowing Rodriguez to finish into the left side of the vacated goal.
“Not many people in the league are going to be able to put that in,” Sinclair said, describing the poise Rodriguez showed to down Eckerstrom before burying her shot.
It was a feel-good moment for a United States legend whose ACL tear at the beginning of the 2017 season left her without a goal for 377 days. Her first since that injury came moments before she was subbed off for Katie Stengel.
“We had loads more control, and we thought the game was going the way we wanted it to go until a random goal that doesn’t happen to us,” Parsons said. “Credit to A-Rod. She was supposed to go off a minute later. Random events, weird events to concede. “
The game opened up drastically after the opening goal, with Parsons likening the up-and-down play to a basketball game. Having brought in Tobin Heath and a debuting Andressinha off the bench, Portland was as close to their full attacking potential was we’ve seen all year. The result saw Utah playing long and quick out of their end between overbearing movements from the Thorns.
“I thought we managed one formation change well,” Parsons said, Portland changing to a 4-3-3 after left-wing back Meghan Klingenberg was forced from the match with an injury, “and we managed to get Tobin on the ball loads more than we did last week, in the same amount of time.”
That time on the ball created one-on-one chance after one-on-one chance down Portland’s left. It also played a part in what was arguably the Thorns’ best goal of the season.
In the 67th minute, Utah play down their right flank was eventually funneled back to the middle of the field, where defensive midfielder Scott found herself in possession, with her back to the defense. The next moments saw five touches produce Portland’s equalizer: one by Andressinha, to win the ball off Scott; two by Sinclair, to collect, then play a pass across the penalty area to Heath; and a final two by Heath, to set up and then chip a driving Abby Smith.
“Right away,” Heath said, asked when she decided what to do on her goal. “The ball was perfect. I tried to repay it, because it was a perfect ball.”
That equalizer could have served as the night’s silver lining, especially since it was Heath’s first Thorns goal since May 21, 2016. But even Heath couldn’t help but put her night’s high point in the context of the team’s broader, mixed result.
“Getting that goal was awesome, but I really wanted to get another one, to be honest,” she explained. “I think the whole team did. So, happy to do that, but definitely not satisfied with the tie.”
It was a sentiment the team’s captain, Sinclair, echoed, contrasting the difficulty of the night's task with the proximity of a full result.
“Any time you play a Laura Harvey team, they’re going to be well organized,” she said. “They’re difficult to break down, and you see there’s some world-class talent scattered throughout their lineup …
“But at the same time, if you look at the whole game, I think we’re walking out of here disappointed that we didn’t get three points.”