Opponent: Long Beach State (0-0-0)
When: Friday, August 21, 2014, 7:00 PM PDT
Where: George Allen Field, Long Beach, CA
Live Stats: Long Beach State GameTracker
Official Game Preview: Here
Bruins Nation Season Preview: Here
The young Bruins travel to Long Beach State this evening to open their 2015 campaign. As I discussed in the Bruins Nation season preview, UCLA lost nine senior starters from the 2014 squad, so Coach Cromwell faces a mighty task in preparing the 2015 edition to contend for a conference title. Even though contending for a Pac-12 title may sound unrealistic to some, the Bruins are ranked fourth in the NSCAA Preseason Coaches Poll and second in the Pac-12 Coaches Poll. Those polls represent an acknowledgement of Coach Cromwell's coaching ability and the talent of the players that she's recruited. But if the Bruins are going to successfully compete with Stanford and Washington for the Pac-12 crown, they'll have to develop quickly, so tonight's match against the 49ers represents an important first step.
UCLA and Missoui Draw in Exhibition
The good news from UCLA's exhibition match against Missouri is that the Bruins' defense was solid. Defense has always been the strength of Coach Cromwell's teams at UCLA, but with the loss of all four defenders and the goalkeeper from last year's squad, there was some concern that the Bruins might be vulnerable at the back. Although a clean sheet in a single exhibition match doesn't put that concern to rest, the initial performance against a strong Missouri side is promising.
The bad news is that the UCLA offense was a bit limp. Understandably, the UCLA midfielders weren't as aggressive in pushing forward as they were last year, so that left the forwards isolated at times. Since the Bruins don't have a forward who is adept at holding up play, that meant that all too often Taylor Smith and the other forwards were left chasing long balls. As Coach Cromwell acknowledged after the exhibition, Smith needs to be given more opportunities to run at the defense with the ball at her feet.
There remains uncertainty about UCLA's starting XI, aside from Smith up front, Lauren Kaskie and Annie Alvarado in midfield, and Zoey Goralski in defense. It will be particularly interesting to see how Coach Cromwell uses her goalkeepers early in the season: will she commit to a starting goalkeeper today, or will she institute some type of goalkeeper rotation until someone steps up to claim the role of first-choice goalkeeper?
Scouting Long Beach State
The 49ers return a strong core group of players from the team that finished 8-7-6 last year. In particular, the Long Beach State defense should be stingy again, with Big West Goalkeeper of the Year Ashton McKeown (0.80 GAA) returning for her junior year and senior Melanie Fox resuming her role as the leader of the back line.
The 49ers are solid in midfield with experience and depth. Junior Mimi Rangel is the best of the bunch, and she is the reigning Big West Midfielder of the Year. Although Long Beach State didn't score a lot of goals in 2014, sophomore Ashley Gonzales is a genuine threat in front of goal; she scored nearly half (9) of the 49ers' 20 goals last year. McKeown, Rangel, and Gonzales have all been named to the Big West Preseason All-Conference Team.
Long Beach State finished a very close second behind Cal Poly in the recent Big West Women's Soccer Preseason Coaches Poll. With so many returning players, it's likely that the 49ers will once again be very tough to break down and will rely heavily on Gonzales to create goal scoring opportunities without much support.
UCLA's opponents get a lot tougher very quickly, so it's vitally important for the young Bruins to get a confidence-boosting win right off the bat. As I mentioned above, Coach Cromwell has always emphasized defensive solidity, so given the inexperience of UCLA's back four, I expect to see the Bruin midfielders exercise more caution going forward than we saw last year. As a consequence, the Bruins aren't likely to score as frequently as they did in 2014, especially early in the season, and there will be added pressure on UCLA's forwards to attack defenses with the ball at their feet.
In spite of UCLA's inexperience, I predict that the Bruins superior talent will result in a narrow opening game victory. In any case, by the end of the evening, we'll know a lot more about the potential of this team and how far along Coach Cromwell is in developing that potential.