Two misplaced shots cost UCLA women’s soccer an opportunity to cap off a remarkable bounce-back season in style.
Had then-senior forward Courtney Proctor and then-freshman midfielder Jessie Fleming drained each of their penalty shots in last year’s round of 16 matchup, the Bruins would’ve reached their third Elite Eight in the previous four seasons.
But, alas, despite a dramatic equalizer in the final five minutes against West Virginia, UCLA flustered in the end, falling to the Mountaineers 0-0 (4-2) in penalties. Coach Amanda Cromwell refrained from showing frustration in the press conference that followed, but did note that penalties are always a “crapshoot.”
While the Bruins didn’t claim a spot in the College Cup last year, they managed to wipe away the dreadful 2015 season from recent memory. They finished 15-5-2 with a fourth-place finish in a competitive Pac-12 conference – five teams qualified for the NCAA tournament last year.
This season’s squad isn’t in the same situation it was a year ago.
Players had to convince doubters that they were still a force to be reckoned with. Now they have to continue the string of consistency and development last year’s squad exhibited throughout its four-month campaign. And it has the tools to do so.
While No. 9 UCLA lost a handful of key players, notably forward Darian Jenkins and midfielders Annie Alvarado and Gabbi Miranda, several talented newcomers will fill in the slots.
The Bruins signed the top recruiting class in the nation, headlined by Marley Canales, Ashley Sanchez – the country’s No. 1 recruit – and esteemed defender Karina Rodriguez. They are just three of the 12 freshman joining UCLA’s roster.
Here’s Ashley Sanchez with a preview of what’s to come.
If the past weekend was any indication for what’s ahead, then high-scoring affairs could be a commonality for the Bruins. After scoring just one goal in a 1-0 victory against Canada FISU, UCLA found the back of the net eight times against Cal State Bakersfield.
Cromwell will have to find new go-to scorers this year, as four of the six top scorers from a year ago are gone. While the team scored nearly two goals per game last season, more than half came from graduating seniors.
Jenkins always provided a much-needed spark on offense with her electric speed before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Bruins will miss her quickness and goal-scoring ability – the Utah product notched 23 career goals. UCLA will also be without seasoned veterans like Proctor and then-senior Amber Munerlyn, who each played a physical presence on the attack.
But there are still several weapons in the Bruins’ offensive third of the pitch. Midfielders and defenders habitually glide up the pitch at times, contributing with crosses from the corners or key passes from the middle of the field.
Then there’s the phenom Fleming, who maneuvers around defenders with ease, creating space and whipping shots past opposing goalies. Even at 5 feet 4 inches, she can tally goals via headers, and occasionally she’ll launch goals from way outside the box. The Canadian star led the team with 11 goals last season.
UCLA’s backfield brigade complements its high-octane offense in several ways.
Each of the key defenders from last season return, including redshirt senior Zoey Goralski, sophomores Kaiya McCullough and Jacey Pederson and senior MacKenzie Cerda. Junior Hailie Mace is also an option, as she started every game in the backfield last year, but she will play forward this season.
Combined with sophomore goalkeeper Teagan Micah, the staunch back line stymied several teams last year, allowing just 22 goals all year and compiling nine shutouts. Each player’s versatility, positioning and composure combine to form a daunting defense crew.
Cromwell has fashioned a deep roster that mixes youth and experience with no real weakness. Her biggest difficulty could be how to utilize all the talent she has.
Nonetheless, the Bruins have the capability to contend with the powerhouse clubs, including reigning NCAA champions – and crosstown rivals – USC. UCLA’s nonconference schedule looks intimidating, as it faces off against three top-25 teams. But it will prepare the platoon for a formidable conference that currently boasts five ranked squads.
This is an NCAA tournament team. And if each player’s pedigree, along with the team’s chemistry, mean anything, than Cromwell could be on her way to claiming her second title in Westwood. That would be No. 114 for the Bruins.
UCLA opens its season Friday at home against San Diego State. The Bruins routed the Aztecs 5-0 last year.
Follow Kyle Cardoza on Twitter @kylecardoza8.