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In the midst of chaos, Utah Royals FC to face National Women’s Soccer-league best North Carolina Courage as playoff chase continues

Utah Royals FC forward Katie Stengel (24) clears the ball away from North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams (9) during the second half of a National Women’s Soccer League match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 27, 2019. The Royals fell
Utah Royals FC forward Katie Stengel (24) clears the ball away from North Carolina Courage forward Lynn Williams (9) during the second half of a National Women’s Soccer League match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, July 27, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

It’s been an interesting last two weeks for Utah Royals FC, and the wild ride continues when the club faces the defending National Women’s Soccer League champion and league-best North Carolina Courage on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium.

To recap the fortnight, URFC was riding high after it beat then-NWSL-best Portland Thorns FC on Sept. 6 at Rio Tinto Stadium to extend its unbeaten streak to five games and vault into a tie for second in the NWSL with the Courage.

That night, however, a fan was accused of yelling racial slurs at Portland goalkeeper Adrianna Franch. Over the next few days, many URFC players spoke out about the issue of racism, and on Sept. 14, the offending individual was banned from all Real Salt Lake venues and all NWSL games.

The decision came the morning after URFC lost 2-1 to the Houston Dash on the road, its first defeat since Aug. 3. In that game against a team that is a longshot to make the playoffs, URFC played poorly, going against the form it had displayed over the previous few weeks.

That loss set up a Sept. 18 clash with Washington-based Reign FC that was primed to go a long way in deciding which of the two teams will make the playoffs, as they entered the contest in a virtual tie for the fourth and final spot.

URFC’s chances of winning looked rather bleak, as its two most important offensive players, Christen Press and Vero Boquete, were listed as doubtful and questionable, respectively, because of injury.

But a little over two hours before first kick, the contest was postponed and ultimately rescheduled for Sept. 25 because heavy rain in Tacoma over the previous few days had made the field at Cheney Stadium unplayable. Many URFC fans expressed relief on social media, as it increased the chances Press and Boquete would be healthy for the all-important game next week.

Press has been upgraded to questionable for Saturday’s contest, while Boquete remains so.

What moving that game to that date means, however, is that URFC will have three contests over the next week, and they’ll all be against teams jockeying for playoff positioning. First up is Saturday’s tilt against the high-powered Courage, who have gained some separation atop the table thanks to a recent tear it has been on.

Since Aug. 24, the Courage have won their last five games, four of which have come since Sept. 7. In back-to-back contests during the streak, North Carolina scored six goals and gave up just one combined. One of those was a 6-0 statement victory on Sept. 11 against Portland (the other was a 6-1 win against the league-worst Orlando Pride).

All of that has put the Courage five points up on the second-place Chicago Red Stars heading into this weekend.

As good as North Carolina is, URFC has had more success against it in its young history than any other side in the league, as the Courage didn’t win any of the teams’ first four meetings before coming out on top 2-1 the last time they played on July 27.