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2015 UCLA Women's Soccer Preview - Rebuild and Contend

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Coach Amanda Cromwell has a huge task this season--rebuilding a team that lost nine starters while contending for a national title.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: Missouri (Exhibition Match)

When: 3:30 PM PDT, Wednesday, August 12

Where: North Athletic Field

Bruins Nation's 2015 Women's Soccer Preview

The Basics

Preseason Rankings:

NSCAA Preseason Coaches Poll: 4th Nationally

Pac-12 Coaches Poll: 2nd in the Pac-12

Departing Players:
  • GK Katelyn Rowland
  • D Caprice Dydasco
  • D Megan Oyster
  • D Abby Dahlkemper
  • D Ally Courtnall
  • MF Sam Mewis
  • MF Sarah Killion
  • F Rosie White
  • F Kylie McCarthy
Key Returning Players:
  • F Taylor Smith (Sr.)
  • F Darian Jenkins (Jr.)
  • F Kodi Lavrusky (Sr.)
  • MF Annie Alvarado (Jr.)
  • MF Lauren Kaskie (Jr.)
  • MF Gabbi Miranda (Jr.)
  • D Zoey Goralski (RSo.)
Key Newcomers:
  • D Inga Bakken (Fr.)
  • D Taome Oliver (Fr.)
  • F/D Amber Munerlyn (Jr.)

Any time a team loses nine starters to graduation--including its goalkeeper and all four defenders--it's fair to say that the team is rebuilding. But there's every reason to believe that Coach Amanda Cromwell's rebuilding effort already has a solid foundation in place.

The forward line returns three key players, including senior Taylor Smith--a MAC Hermann watch list selection--and super-subs Darian Jenkins and Kodi Lavrusky.

Junior Annie Alvarado returns to patrol the middle of the pitch, and she's joined there by several teammates who have played important roles in the past two seasons. There isn't as much experience at the back, and in particular, in goal, but the Bruins have a wealth of talented young players competing for spots, including freshman defender Inga Bakken--recently selected to the Top Drawer Soccer All-Freshmen Team--and Arsenal Ladies FC defender/midfielder Taome Oliver.

The Schedule

The Bruins face a challenging schedule in 2015, especially considering the relative inexperience of Coach Cromwell's squad. Nevertheless, elite teams need to test themselves against the best opponents, so this is an example of Coach Cromwell doing things the right way. UCLA will face 14 opponents that qualified for the NCAA tournament last year, four teams in the NSCAA preseason Top 10, and seven teams in the Top 20.

The highlights of the schedule include UCLA's home opener against #14 Wisconsin on August 30th, a September 4th rematch against #2 Virginia (the team that eliminated the Bruins in the NCAA quarterfinals last year), a road game against #7 North Carolina on September 13th, a home match four days later against #10 Pepperdine, and a difficult late season road trip that will take the Bruins to the Bay Area to face #3 Stanford (November 1) and #18 Cal (November 3). And of course the regular season finale against Southern Cal (November 6) is a match that we always look forward to.

The Players

It's very difficult to project which players will earn places in the starting XI, much less which players will earn a regular place in Coach Cromwell's rotation. Nevertheless, it's fairly certain that senior Taylor Smith will start up front, as she has for the past two seasons. Smith tied for second in goals last season with nine, and I suspect that she will be more prolific in 2015.

My best guess is that she'll be flanked by senior Kodi Lavrusky and possibly sophomore MacKenzie Cerda. A further possibility is that she'll be paired with junior Darian Jenkins, although Cromwell has preferred to bring Jenkins in off the bench in the past. Another player who will see significant playing time is junior Amber Munerlyn, a transfer from North Carolina. Munerlyn has plenty of experience and is a proven scorer. In any case, independent of the formation that Coach Cromwell employs, I expect those five players to get the bulk of the minutes up front. A sixth player who merits strong consideration for playing time as a substitute is redshirt junior Courtney Proctor. Although she's missed nearly two full seasons due to injury, she has consistently earned playing time when she's healthy.

Junior Annie Alvarado should be a midfield fixture this season and a team leader. Junior Lauren Kaskie is likely to join her in midfield; Kaskie has played at least a small part in every game that Amanda Cromwell has coached at UCLA. Junior Gabbi Miranda also seems a likely candidate for significant minutes in midfield. Miranda was in training camp with the U.S. Under-23 National Team in the spring, so it's clear that she has the talent to flourish if given greater opportunity.

Senior Kristiana Konkol-Mroczkowski is another good bet to feature in midfield this year. After tearing her ACL and missing the rest of the season in 2013, she started to work her way back into form last year, and she had a strong showing in spring soccer this year. Depending on the formation that Coach Cromwell employs, we may see sophomore Gabrielle Mautlich and/or freshman Taome Oliver in a midfield holding role. Mautlich also had a strong spring, so if she's not given a role in midfield, expect to see her getting minutes as a fullback.

It's far more difficult to anticipate the defenders that will earn starting roles and playing time as substitutes. Highly-rated freshman Inga Bakken from Norway is one candidate to fill the void at the back. She has the height (5'8") to play as a central defender. Another strong contender for minutes as a central defender is junior Alyssa Alarab. Although she's had few opportunities to play in her first two seasons in Westwood, she featured in spring soccer.

A third candidate for central defense is senior Madison Tye. Like Alarab, opportunities to get on the pitch have been few and far between for Tye, but she has the height and strength needed to play in the heart of the UCLA defense. It also seems likely that redshirt freshman Chloe Hemingway will get a long look as a central defender. She was highly rated by Top Drawer Soccer coming out of high school, and she's participated with the U.S. National Team at various levels.

Redshirt sophomore Zoey Goralski will undoubtedly start in defense for the 2015 Bruins. She played extensively as a defensive substitute last season and earned All-Freshman team selection by Soccer America. Given her height (5'3") and work rate, she's a strong candidate to take one of the fullback spots. As I mentioned above, Gabrielle Mautlich and Taome Oliver are also solid candidates to earn time as fullbacks.

Perhaps the most difficult departing player to replace is Katelyn Rowland. None of the goalkeepers on the roster have ever played even a minute of collegiate soccer. Redshirt junior Cassie Sternbach served as the backup to Rowland last season, and freshmen Arielle Schechtman and Siri Ervik both redshirted in 2014. Today's exhibition match is likely to provide answers about which of these student-athletes will claim the starting job. Although I don't think it's Coach Cromwell's preferred option, it's possible that she may use a goalkeeper rotation this year, or at least that may be how the task of selecting a number one begins. If so, it probably comes down to a battle between Ervik and Schechtman; the two redshirt freshmen split goalkeeper duties in spring soccer.

Head Coach Amanda Cromwell

Coach Amanda Cromwell has been the head coach of the Bruins for just two seasons, yet she's already widely regarded as one of Dan Guerrero's best hires. Coach Cromwell's record at UCLA stands at 43-2-5. She has won the Pac-12 title in both of her seasons at the helm, and as every UCLA fan knows, she led the team to the national title in 2013. In her first year at UCLA, Cromwell was named Soccer America's Coach of the Year; in her second season at UCLA, she was selected as NSCAA Pacific Region Coach of the Year.

But the reason Coach Cromwell is so highly regarded has less to do with her record and awards and more to do with the performances of her team on the pitch. If you've watched Cromwell's Bruins play, you've seen a disciplined, well-organized team that does things the right way. Coach Cromwell's players are unselfish and demonstrate a remarkable work ethic; her teams are defensively sound, and rely on intelligent movement and quick passes in attack. In short, Coach Cromwell's teams have been a joy to watch. In my opinion, she has quickly established herself as an elite coach.

Expectations

Given UCLA's preseason ranking, it's easy to forget how difficult a task Coach Cromwell faces in integrating a large number of relatively inexperienced players into the starting XI. In my opinion, it will be quite an accomplishment if the Bruins finish as high as second in a strong Pac-12 conference.

Last year, three Pac-12 schools were seeded in the NCAA tournament, and another six teams were selected for the field. This season, I think it's reasonable to expect that UCLA will finish strongly enough to earn an NCAA tournament seed. And considering the fact that the 2015 Bruins should become a stronger, more cohesive unit over the course of the season, it's reasonable to expect the Bruins to advance to the Round of 16 in the tournament.

To be clear about this, these are not minimum expectations for the program. Coach Cromwell and her staff, along with another terrific group of student-athletes, have set the bar high, so there's no reason to contemplate minimum achievements that will keep us satisfied with the trajectory of our women's soccer program. My expectations are set by the fact that we have an elite coach leading an elite program. I believe that they can accomplish great things in 2015.

Go BRUINS!