SALT LAKE CITY — When a conversation arises about Utah Royals FC’s potentially dangerous attack, the same names generally come up.
First and foremost there’s United States Women’s National Team forward Christen Press, who has five goals in just six National Women’s Soccer League games this season and was named NWSL Player of the Week on Wednesday for her efforts last week.
Then there’s former USWNT stalwart forward Amy Rodriguez, who leads URFC with seven goals in 2019, and midfielder Vero Boquete, whom URFC head coach Laura Harvey recently called the “linchpin” of the attack because of her brilliant ability to set Press and Rodriguez up to score.
Katie Stengel, who scored her first goal of the season last Sunday after leading the team in 2018, and even USWNT outside back Kelley O’Hara (when healthy) get mentioned, too.
Last week as URFC’s offense woke up from a long, long slumber and scored six goals en route to two wins, it was another player beside the aforementioned quintet who starred.
That would be midfielder Lo’eau LaBonta, who has appeared in 14 of 16 games this year and played the full 90-plus minutes in eight of them, but before last week hadn’t really been considered a major threat in the attack (she did score the lone goal in the season opener on April 20).
In victories over New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC and Washington-based Reign FC, however, LaBonta scored once and officially assisted on another goal, with only a random deflection against SBFC preventing her from being credited with two helpers on the week.
The assist was her first since 2017, and she now has just two in her NWSL career, which began in 2016.
So what’s led to the sudden uptick in production from the 5-foot-1 LaBonta? The way she sees it, the attention heaped upon Press and Rodriguez by opposing defenses has opened up opportunities for her to be more aggressive.
“I think my job on this team is to break space, get in there, and then slip the balls to the forwards, but I feel like other teams now are so occupied with our star forwards that they left me completely open, which is fine because I was finally able to get a shot on goal,” she said Sunday after she scored in URFC’s 3-1 win over Reign FC. “I did not see an opening for the (other) girls, and then I saw an opening for myself and took it.”
With essentially a full attack now available since Press has returned from World Cup duty (O’Hara remains out with an ankle injury), LaBonta feels the attacking cohesion is finally coming together after URFC slogged through much of the season on that end of the pitch without much success.
“I think the team is finally getting their chemistry, and we’re just working the ball constantly so it’s not just getting our forwards to shoot. It’s getting our top five able to get on goal,” she said. “I think we just keep working on that and our chemistry and it’s getting better.”
Added Harvey: “I think that’s the best thing about our team right now, that if you stop Christen, it creates space for Stengel and (Rodriguez) and Vero and Lo’eau today. If you stop those guys or any of those guys, then it might open up a little bit of space for Christen. I think for us, it’s about recognizing that and utilizing that.”
On Saturday night, URFC will face the Orlando Pride on the road, a team that is at the bottom of the NWSL table and has given up a league-worst 32 goals on the season, six more than any other squad.
With a win, URFC would at least briefly move into the fourth and final NWSL playoff spot, bumping out Reign FC, which doesn’t play again until Sunday.
Saturday’s contest is slated to start at 5:30 p.m. MT.