It’s been nearly four years since UCLA women’s soccer had an opportunity to bring back home a national championship.
Despite having some of the most talented teams in recent history, Amanda Cromwell hasn’t guided the Bruins to a championship match since her first season in Westwood. Two teams – 2014 and 2016 – were lauded as capable of reaching the finals, yet both were ultimately thwarted.
This could be the season No. 5 UCLA (15-2-2, 8-2-1 Pac-12) returns to the final.
The Bruins capped off the regular season with possibly its most anticipated bout of the season – a date with the rival Trojans (14-3-1, 8-2-1). And after an affair that lasted more than the regular 90 minutes, UCLA stole a victory to head into the postseason with some momentum.
Unlike last season’s war of attrition between the two clubs, this year’s match featured several highlight-reel goals. USC sparked the offensive showdown early in the first half.
The Trojans marched into Bruin territory in the 11th minute. Julia Bingham cruised down the field unmolested by defenders and found space for a cross into the box, where Nicole Molen awaited a lofty cross.
Molen headed it straight into the back of the goal from the left side as UCLA goalie Teagan Micah watched it roll in.
It took some time for the Bruins to notch the equalizer, but it came prior to the end of the first half – from an unfamiliar face on the offensive side.
In the 26th minute, sophomore defender Kaiya McCullough hustled up the pitch, swiftly dribbling the ball into the Trojans’ territory. When she reached the outside of the box, she slapped a grounder that snuck into the bottom-left corner of the goal to make it 1-1.
But UCLA couldn’t silence Molen before the end of the half.
After notching just her third goal of the season earlier in the match, the midfielder was in the right place at the right time in the 34th minute. A sea of players were stationed in front of Bruins’ goal, and after a game of pinball, Molen flicked the ball into the goal.
After entering the half down 2-1, UCLA dominated the second period.
The Bruins checked the Trojans’ torrid regiment and was able to find the back of the net for the equalizer before night’s end thanks to redshirt sophomore midfielder/forward Anika Rodriguez.
USC attempted to clear the ball by dribbling up, but was intercepted by Rodriguez. The usual facilitator found space and glided into the opponent’s box, gently tapping the ball into the right corner of the goal.
After 90 minutes, neither team claimed the victory. But the highly touted freshman finally put an end to the fireworks display.
Ashley Sanchez, who has been quiet for much of the season, recorded the game-winner in front of the 12,000-plus spectators, and in dramatic fashion.
Eighty seconds into the overtime period, Rodriguez drifted up the pitch smothered by Trojan defenders. With a split-second decision, the midfielder tapped a pass to her left to Sanchez, who kicked it into a wall in front of the box. The ball ricocheted off a defender and past goalie Kaylie Collins to end the match.
The victory set the stage for the upcoming weeks – this team has high expectations. And the road to Orlando begins Friday against San Diego State (12-7-2, 7-2-2 MW).
When the Aztecs and Bruins met back in September, it was a one-sided affair, with UCLA vanquishing San Diego State 5-1. It was ultimately the first glimpse of the Bruins’ attack force, which has had its ups and downs all season.
The Aztecs couldn’t contain the Bruins back then, but they’re entering Friday’s bout on a six-game winning streak – all against Mountain West opponents. Against nonconference opponents, San Diego State struggled on the road, accumulating just one victory, which was against a formerly-ranked Nebraska squad.
San Diego State’s stringent defense has been on display across the past few games. The Aztecs recorded three clean sheets in their past four bouts. And that defense has been consistent, as the only time it allowed four or more goals in one match was against the Bruins.
Last season, UCLA cruised through the first two rounds of the tourney. San Diego State boasts a similar resume as Seattle – the Bruins’ first-round opponent last year – did last season. And Cromwell’s crew is much improved from last season, averaging more than two goals a game while allowing fewer than one per match.
With a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Bruins will protect their turf up until the Elite Eight – if they continue to win. They may meet some familiar faces along the way, as they’ve already faced San Diego State, Pepperdine and Virginia earlier this season.
It all begins Friday.
This is your UCLA women’s soccer vs. San Diego State game thread.