ORLANDO — Utah Royals FC made an immediate impression during its National Women’s Soccer League debut, earning a point in a 1-1 tie against the Orlando Pride at Orlando City Stadium on Saturday night.
Midfielder Gunnhildur "Gunny" Jonsdottir scored on a right-footed shot from the center of the box to the bottom right corner of the goal in the third minute of play, assisted by midfielder Diana Matheson on a cross.
“It was good to start off the game with an early goal,” Jonsdottir said. “We keep the ball out on the wing pretty well and then up. I was being patient and Diana Matheson came in with a great ball and there was nothing else I could do but put it in.”
Utah head coach Laura Harvey said that she was impressed with her team’s performance in its debut match, especially in a tough road environment.
“Overall, I’m really proud of the players” Harvey said. “Considering a new coach, new players, new team, we worked a lot on who we want to be without the ball and I think you could see that tonight. I think we needed to be a little bit better with the ball and that’s really going to be our focus moving forward. But for our first game and to come here, which I think is one of the hardest places to come in the league, to come away with a point — even though it could have been three — I’m surely proud of them."
Penalties played a huge role in Saturday’s outcome as the Royals were called for 13 fouls and received two yellow cards, including one in the 20th minute after a shot by Orlando midfielder Dani Weatherholt in the penalty area resulted in a handball call on center back Becky Sauerbrunn.
The Pride tied the game on a successful penalty kick by forward Marta, which ultimately cost the Royals two additional points in their NWSL debut.
Harvey critiqued the officiating following Saturday’s game but said she was trying her best “not to get fined” while doing so.
“It’s hard to come here and not come away with three points when you concede the penalty that we did,” she said. “What I don’t get is how the linesman watches the replay and still gives it. It blows my mind. So, I don’t want to get fined, but it just has to be better and every year we say the same and every year we get told that they will be better. I just don’t get it. And Becky Sauberbrunn literally has a Nike swoosh on her face.”
After the game, head referee Danielle Chesky issued an official statement to the Orlando Sentinel’s Mike Gramajo via a referee pool reporter question form claiming Sauberbrunn’s “arms were in an unnatural position and was determined to deliberately handle the ball.”
When asked why the defender received a yellow card, Chesky added, “the yellow card was issued for unsporting behavior, stopping a promising attack, deliberate handling on a shot on goal.”
Utah outshot Orlando 9-7; however, the Pride held the advantage with a 3-2 advantage in shots on goal.
Goalkeeper Abby Smith, who was acquired by the Royals in a dispersal draft after the Boston Breakers folded this offseason, started over injured veteran Nicole Barnhart and rookie EJ Proctor.
Smith was credited with two saves during Saturday’s game, including a right-footed shot to the right side of the box by forward Alex Morgan in the 28th minute and a header from the center of the box by Sydney Leroux in the 49th minute.
Orlando also had an edge in time of possession with 53.7 percent and 455 total passes to the Royals’ 388.
“You always know when you come here that Orlando wants to play and they want to possess,” Harvey said. “So we knew we had to weather that storm and we had to take the fact that they were going to hold on to the ball. But I felt we defended well.”
Orlando lost Morgan in the 46th minute of play following a head-to-head collision with Smith on a header attempt near Utah’s crease. The U.S. Women's National Team standout and former World Cup champion was substituted for Chioma Ubogagu and underwent concussion protocol after the play.
“Obviously, when you lose anyone, it’s a big blow,” teammate Sydney Leroux said of Morgan’s departure. “Especially losing her so early. We were kind of rotating between me, Marta and Alex, and then Chi came in, and then I kind of stayed a little more central and tried to push the line.”
Utah will continue its road trip with a matchup at Houston next Friday before its home opener against the Chicago Red Stars on April 14.
“I think it’s good to start on the road,” Jonsdottir said. “It’s good to start with a hard game like this and I think Houston is going to be just as hard. It’s going to be a new environment, new team, and I think they play differently than Orlando so we’ll have a week to work on that and get ready and we can’t wait.”