By Scott French
SAN DIEGO -- Salt Lake United's plan was simple: defend, defend, defend.
The precision with which the Utah club accomplished that turned a one-sided game their way in the Women's Premier Soccer League's West regional final Sunday afternoon -- although plenty of help came its way.
Salt Lake United (8-0-2) took advantage of the San Diego SeaLions' defensive miscues and scored on two quick, long counterattacks to claim the final berth for the WPSL's championship weekend with a 3-1 triumph at Cathedral Catholic High School.
Erin Morrinson scored from a misplayed back pass just 70 seconds into the game, Kira Sharp and Stephanie Verdoia caught the SeaLions on the counter, and the Utah's defense did the rest to book a trip next weekend to Pensacola, Fla., where they will join Oklahoma FC (11-1-2), Aztec MA (9-1-1) and host Gulf Coast Texans (7-0-0). Semifinal matchups will be announced Monday.
The SeaLions (8-2-0), champions of the Pacific-South Conference, dominated nearly every phase of action Sunday but couldn't break down a defense anchored by center back Brinna Bennion and goalkeeper Rebecca Ritchie.
“Our plan was to be perfect on defense,” Salt Lake co-captain Tasha Aoino said. “If we were going to do anything perfect, it was going to be on defense.”
They needed it: The SeaLions, who lost on penalties to the Orange County Waves in last year's West regional final, spent most of the game with the ball between the midfield stripe and Salt Lake's box, finding penetration once Shelby Murphy came off the bench about a half-hour in.
By then it was 2-1, and San Diego's best efforts -- through Rosie Tantillo in the middle, Nikki Petracca on the flank and Danica Carey's long throw-ins on the narrow field -- were close, just not close enough.
“I feel like it was ours to take,” SeaLions coach Jen Lalor-Nielsen said, doing her best to hold back tears. “Obviously, capitalizing on the opportunities we had wasn't there, but if you look at the amount of ball possession and the amount we were in their attacking half, it kind of makes it [clear] who dominated the game, but the game always comes down to putting the ball in the back of the net.
“A few key errors we had in the back allowed some easy goals to be [scored by Salt Lake]. We controlled the majority of the game, but the best team doesn't always win.”
Big Sky North Conference champ Salt Lake, which this year became affiliated with Major League Soccer powerhouse Real Salt Lake, went ahead in the second minute when a miscommunication and poor touch on San Diego's backline left Morrinson an empty net. Tantillo tied it just four minutes later, her free kick from 21 yards toward the upper-right corner leaving Ritchie glued to her spot.
It was San Diego's game the rest of the way, except it wasn't: Utah, with height and grit in the back and as many as nine players behind the ball nearly every moment, repelled foray after foray. When the SeaLions did get off shots, they were wide -- a few, notably by Murphy and Judy Christopher in the first half and Sarah Devine on a second-half header -- or right at Ritchie.
Binnion, central partner Alex Kirk and fellow backs Natalie Norris and Chelsea Wallis were superb, cutting off angles and blocking shots, and Ritchie got to everything except that Tantillo free kick.
“That [San Diego] team obviously has a lot of talent and a lot of weapons, so a piece of our game plan was to stay focused, try to compact our defense, let them have the outsides and work on our shape,” said Salt Lake's assistant coach Ab Rees, who ran the side while head coach Dennis Burrows was with another Salt Lake United team at the U.S. Adult Soccer Association's Women's Cup final four in Chicago. “The idea was if we get our shape together, then we can go out and attack them. But first priority was to get back inside and let them have the outsides, just not let them in behind us.”
Attacking through counters wasn't the plan.
“We wanted some more possession, we just didn't get it,” Rees said. “So defense first.”
Salt Lake got all it needed from counters. It went ahead in the 20th minute, after a San Diego corner kick was cleared to Sharp, who took off on a 60-yard run to the SeaLions' box. Defender Britnee Chesney, the last defender, dived in about 40 yards from goal to stop the former NCAA Division II All-American from Metro State, who blew right past and easily beat goalkeeper Kaycee Gunion once she reached the box.
That would be all the Salt Lake needed, thanks to its defense and a little luck: Tantillo nearly had a second in a scramble in front of the goal with about 12 minutes to go but couldn't get a shot off as she sat on the ground. It was swallowed up by Ritchie, who quickly released the ball, starting a quick counter that led to Seattle University sophomore Verdoia streaking down the right flank. She chipped over Gunion and inside the left post from outside the box.
The SeaLions had two more decent chances, but Petracca fired at Ritchie in the 85th minute and Devine hit the crossbar in stoppage.
The defeat was painful for the SeaLions, who have come so close to the national final four two years in a row.
“They both hurt,” Lalor-Nielsen said. “The girls were so goal-oriented this year. Last year it was nice to be in it and know we could compete against one of the pro teams [the Waves, who disbanded after winning the WPSL title]. I think the feel of going into this was our own: This was our house, this was our home field, and I think that part amongst the girls hurts the worst.”
Salt Lake, of course, was ecstatic.
“This is the vision we had, kind of coming and competing and making our mark,” said assistant coach Sara Cowley, who helped found the club, formerly Sparta Women, since its 2008 inception. “This is what I've been dreaming of since we started this team.”
Said Aoino: “I hoped for it. I knew we had it in us. I knew we had the talent to go this far. It's our first year [together], so no one expected us to. Right time, right place for us.”