It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t easy. But, at the end of the day, three points are three points. And that’s exactly what the Red Stars came away with in their 1-0 victory over the host Utah Royals Sunday night at Zions Bank Stadium.
Casey Short scored the winner in the 85th minute with a header over USWNT mainstay Kelley O’Hara just inside the left post beating Royals goalkeeper Abby Smith. Service on the goal came via a perfect cross from the right flank hitting Short on the edge of the 6 yard box.
That goal, along with a tackle, a block and three interceptions gave Casey the Woman of the Match tonight. Short felt the team’s effort was critical for the win.
“We just didn’t give up.” Short said in post-game comments. “We just kept pushing and finally, one of our chances played out”
Savannah McCaskill played a versatile role for the Red Stars in the match. She started as the center forward for Dames, but before coming off in the 89th minute, spent time as the number 10 and back in the number 8, central midfield role, tying for the team lead with 36 passes.
It always felt like the first three games of the NWSL Challenge Cup were the pre-season and game four and the knockout stages would be the first games where the results mattered. After the game against North Carolina, Red Stars Coach Rory Dames said as much by saying his lineup would be made up of the players who, “earned the right to be on the field”.
This meant long awaited return from injury for Tierna Davidson who started and played until the first half hydration break in the 33rd minute when she was replaced by Zoey Goralski.
“Tierna had a time restriction,” said Dames when asked about the substitution. “So we just wanted to get her out and about and let her get her feet wet.”
However, conspicuously absent tonight was Yuki Nagasato. In the post-game press conference, Dames admitted, “Yuki picked up a knock in training,” and her return in the tournament is questionable.
Dames felt she, “probably could play”, but is continuing his cautious approach with player health.
“I don’t know if we use her the rest of the event,“ Dames conceded.
Chances were tough to come by all night, however in stoppage time of the first half, the Red Stars nearly broke through when Julie Ertz floated in the perfect pass putting Morgan Gautrat through on goal.
However, a heavy collision after a charging save by Utah goalkeeper Abby Smith ended Gautrat’s night also possibly her tournament as well.
“Morgan probably could have gone back on in the second half, Dames said, but this event isn’t worth risking anybody to get hurt, hurt. So, better to rest her and shut her down and see how she feels for the next round.
“She wanted to go back out. We didn’t see any reason to take any chances with her. So, we chose not to put her back out.”
With the offense needing over 314 minutes between goals, the defense has remained strong only giving up one goal in that time.
Alyssa Naeher earned her first shutout tonight with three stops, including the save of the night on an effort from Arielle Ship after a beautiful 1-2 combination play with Brittany Ratcliffe.
For Dames, this strong defense will be key as the tournament moves forward.
“We are going to be hard to break down.” Dames stated. “…and we don’t concede a lot when we put our best block out there of our back and our midfielders”.
Despite being ugly at times, the win is key for the Red Stars, who were looking to avoid finishing with the number eight seed, which would put them against number one North Carolina in the quarterfinal.
Captain Julie Ertz, called it “Huge”.
“Because at the end of the day, especially when it becomes the knock out stages, you’ve got to grind it out at the end.” Ertz continued. “It’s about who can get the goals right when it matters. Whether it’s a scrappy goal, pretty goal, whatever it is”.
Casey Short agreed with Ertz that the win was important moving forward.
“I think the biggest thing with this game was to start clicking and get our chemistry, and then get some momentum going forward,” Short said, “So it was a huge win for us.”
After the win tonight, the Red Stars have moved off the bottom of the table and somewhere between the 5th and 7th seed, depending on results in the remaining games on Monday. The 5th seed could mean a potential rematch with the top-seeded Courage in the semifinals, while the 6th or 7th seed puts Chicago on the other side of the bracket.