Trailing 2-0, frustration mounted and sweat dripped from brows of exhausted players as a full-court press for goal began with the focus shifted to a singular initiative -- to equalize. The final whistle book-ended the loss and the season for Utah Royals FC, signifying the ending of a tumultuous year. But easily overlooked was the history made in the 66th minute when Michele Vasconcelos was substituted on for Brittany Ratcliffe.
Debuts, by any means, are worth noting, but for Vasconcelos in particular the significance is greater. The forward was born and raised in Sandy, Utah, growing up in the shadows of Rio Tinto Stadium, state championships and youth matches were played on the very pitch that is home to the best in the state of Utah. So, when Vasconcelos stepped onto the pitch against OL Reign she became the first Utah-native to play for the Utah-based club.
Vasconcelos joined Royals FC just before the start of the National Women’s Soccer League Fall Series, a four-match tournament that would take the team through the end of the season. With COVID-19 protocols and just a short period of training with the team she knew that the opportunity to play this season would be slim.
The first two matches came and went without any appearance of Vasconcelos on the gameday roster and the third match, at Rio Tinto Stadium, saw her sit on the bench. It’s poetic in a way that the one match the forward played in was not at the team's home stadium, it wasn’t in front of family and friends, rather it was over 850 miles away under the cover of rain-filled clouds.
“I was not sure if it was going to happen this year,” Vasconcelos said. “I had limited training time with the team and I really only had two games to get my chance. I knew I had a better chance in the away match, I had time to work with the group and mesh more, but still I was not sure.”
Interim Head Coach Amy LePeilbet pulled the trigger early in the second half down two goals looking for a spark plug in the offense to attempt some form of a comeback. Several minutes after taking the field an opening came, Vasconcelos received the ball and got a breakaway down the right flank. With just the goalkeeper in between her and a story-book ending to a historic night the forward took a slight touch to her right side and released. The shot was blocked and the team finished the night unable to find the back of the net.
“Coming on in any match you’re only thinking about one thing -- Doing your job,” Vasconcelos said. “I never thought about it as my debut, and honestly I was just frustrated that I was unable to get the goal.”
And while the night may not have been everything she had dreamed of it’s more indicative of what this year has been like. Filled with ups and downs, the one consistent has been the team’s ability to get back up and go again, and despite the circumstances being willing to try again.
It will likely won’t be anytime soon until Utah Royals FC fans get to see Vasconcelos try her hand at goal again, they can take comfort knowing that it’s coming and until then the forward will spend everyday working hard to make sure it happens.
“The night didn’t go how we, or myself, wanted, but it laid the groundwork for next year and gave me something to work for during this offseason,” Vasconcelos finished.