HERRIMAN — In its first game of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup on June 30 against the Houston Dash, Utah Royals FC used a late flurry of goals to come away with a point.
On Wednesday, it was on the wrong end of late scoring, as a dramatic Bethany Balcer header in the opening minute of stoppage time lifted Washington-based OL Reign to the 1-0 win at Zions Bank Stadium.
The Reign’s Yuki Momiki, who had subbed on just about 10 minutes earlier, sent the ball into the box about 30 yards away from goal. Balcer made a run, neither Katie Bowen nor newcomer Taylor Leach picked her up and she redirected Momiki’s delivery past a diving Nicole Barnhart, who made her first start of the season in goal.
“It was just a good first contact and it was a great ball in,” URFC center back Elizabeth Ball said of Balcer’s goal. “We just needed to be tighter, but great goal by her.”
The game-winning goal, which gave URFC its first loss of the tournament and the Reign its first win, was the ultimate culmination of a final 20 minutes that saw the Reign dominate. In the 67th minute, URFC’s Brittany Ratcliffe had a great look at a goal but her shot went high, and Balcer — the reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year and a regular starter — came on as a sub moments later.
Her presence changed the game, as the Reign got on the front foot with her leading the charge. From the 71st minute until Balcer’s goal, the Reign got off shot after shot, a number of which Barnhart had to save.
“They got momentum, absolutely,” URFC head coach Craig Harrington said, pointing to stoppages for a hydration break and an injury as moments he felt were crucial. “Ultimately, momentum of the game changed and shifted, and I think also we made some really individual errors with where we passed the ball, decisions that we made on throw-ins, decisions that we made on clearances that didn’t help our cause.”
It didn’t help either that URFC wasn’t nearly as sharp offensively as it had been in its first two games. The tournament hosts struggled to get forward and the partnership between midfielder Vero Boquete and forward Amy Rodriguez that was so good last Saturday in a 1-0 win over Sky Blue FC was rather absent on Wednesday.
On the day, the Reign finished with 15 shots to URFC’s 11, although both sides finished with five shots on goal.
“I think the first half, we were in the fight,” Boquete said of an opening 45 minutes Wednesday that was rather ugly soccer, with neither team able to generate much of anything significant. “Second half, we dropped too much, we didn’t find those spaces, we didn’t have possession of the ball and that really hurt us. The late goal obviously made it worse.
Now we have to recover, we have to see what we have to change and how we can find that connection, not just between midfielders and forwards, but also defenders and midfielders and even the midfielders themselves.”
Wednesday’s game went a long way in muddying up the middle of the Challenge Cup table even more than it was before, as four of the eight teams are now tied with four points, and that will become a five-way tie if Sky Blue manages to upset the Dash in Wednesday’s tournament nightcap.
After that contest, all eight teams will have just one remaining before the knockout rounds begin on July 17 with the quarterfinals. URFC’s final preliminary game will be Sunday night against the Chicago Red Stars.
“It was definitely an eye-opener,” Ball said of her team’s outing. “I’m glad it happened now instead of in the quarterfinals or semis or finals, but we definitely know we need to come out way harder and we need to just have that mindset that we’re going to fight and win.”