The UCLA women’s soccer team (17-3-1) heads deep into Tobacco Road territory today to face the North Carolina Tar Heels (20-3-1) in an epic battle to decide which of those two teams will advance to the Women’s College Cup next weekend.
Two teams have already punched their tickets to the Women’s College Cup. Stanford beat Tennessee, 2-0, yesterday and Florida State outlasted Penn State, 1-0. That represents one side of the bracket. For reasons that will become apparent, both of those teams factor into the analysis of the UCLA v. UNC game.
The other side of the bracket will be decided today with Georgetown hosting Baylor and UNC hosting the Bruins.
Last Time Out
In its third round match-up in the friendly confines of Wallis Annenberg Stadium, UCLA dismantled North Carolina State—a team that finished 11th in the ACC—by the score of 5-0. It was the same 5-0 score that UCLA put up in its two previous NCAA games against Minnesota and San Jose State, respectively.
Against the Wolfpack, UCLA midfielder Jessie Fleming got things started with a goal in the sixth minute and, then, earned a brace with another in the 22nd minute, staking UCLA to a 2-0 lead. Defender Karina Rodriguez found the net after a corner kick ping-ponged around in the box, putting UCLA up 3-0 at the half.
The Bruins cruised from there, notching two more goals in the last ten minutes of the game, with Chloe Castaneda finishing in the 83nd minute, and Hailie Mace putting the cherry on top in the 85th.
UCLA has now won twelve straight games. The Bruins only losses this season (at Florida State, at Stanford, and at home versus Wazzou) came without the engine in the midfield, Fleming. Jessie will be be suited up today and ready to go. So, something has to give.
Do not expect UCLA to put up five against the Tar Heels. No matter which team wins, things will be much different, and much tighter, today.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The University of North Carolina Tar Heels Women’s Soccer team is THE blue blood of the sport. They dominated women’s soccer in the late 80s and early 90s like John Wooden’s basketball teams of the mid 60s through the mid 70s.
UNC won nine straight National Championships from 1986 to 1994, won three before that, and have won nine times in the 23 years since 1994. That’s a total of 21 National Championships, folks. Those early 90s teams had their version of Bill Walton and her name was Mia Hamm, one of the greatest players—if not THE greatest player—in US women’s soccer history.
But that was then and this is now. The Tar Heels haven’t raised the NCAA trophy since 2012, one year before UCLA notched its only natty in 2013. Last season, the Bruins and Tar Heels were on a collision course to meet in the quarterfinals, as they are doing this year, but Princeton upset UNC with a golden goal overtime winner, 2-1.
The 2018 iteration of the Tar Heels is impressive. UNC only has three losses and two of them came against teams to whom UCLA also lost—Florida State (in the ACC Tournament title game) and at Stanford in overtime. The Tar Heels also lost to Santa Clara on the same NorCal road trip.
As I mentioned above, both Florida State and Stanford have already advanced to the Women’s College Cup. So, those losses are against elite competition.
The Tar Heels went undefeated (10-0) in regular season conference play in the brutal ACC. They have allowed one goal or less in 22 of the Tar Heels’ 24 games, surrendering three goals in the Florida State and Stanford losses (for what it is worth, UCLA gave up three goals to Stanford and four to Florida State).
So, why is UNC so good? Like UCLA, they score a lot of goals. They also play great defense and have two excellent goalkeepers.
Sophomore forward Alessia Russo won the ACC Player of the Year award despite missing ten games due to injury and an international call up to the U-20 Women’s World Cup. Russo scored six goals and added four assists. Freshman midfielder Brianna Pinto also has six goals, to go with eight assists. Senior defender Julia Ashley also gets into the act from the back line, notching four goals and ten assists.
Unlike UCLA’s recent opponents in the first three rounds of the NCAAs, UNC has more than just one player that can beat you. If you divert your focus to stopping one player, they have a handful of others who can make you pay. Case in point: UNC has eight players who have four or more goals on the season.
Carolina’s goalkeeping situation is interesting. UNC has used a platoon for most of the season, with senior Samantha Leshnak logging over 1,400 minutes, and freshman Claudia Dickey getting 700. Expect the experienced Leshnak, who has better numbers, including a sterling 0.31 goals against average to get the start.
UCLA has already lost to North Carolina twice this weekend: in Men’s and Women’s basketball. Will the third time be the charm for the Bruins? It will be a tough battle on enemy soil and will have the feel of a Women’s College Cup final.
I believe that it is precisely this type of situation that led UCLA’s Head Coach Amanda Cromwell to have her Bruins take a two-week, three-game East Coast road trip earlier in the season. Two of the three teams UCLA faced on that trip, FSU and Penn State, were among the final eight teams.
Both of these teams are immensely talented. And, clearly, either one is capable of winning today. I am going to say that Coach Cromwell’s decision to take that trip is the difference, with UCLA winning a tight, tense battle, 2-1.
Let us know your thoughts on the game in the comment section.