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UCLA Women’s Soccer 2018 Season Preview

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The Bruins return much of the team that made it to the NCAA Championship last season, but need to rebuild the back line.

NCAA Womens Soccer: College Cup
UCLA’s Hailie Mace returns to UCLA for her sennior season.
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Bruins Nation’s preview of the UCLA Women’s 2018 Soccer team. It is an exciting time for UCLA soccer for a number of reasons.

First, many critical pieces from UCLA’s 2017 season are returning. That squad went 19-3-3, and fell to Stanford, 3-2, in the 2017 NCAA Championship game in Orlando, Florida. Stanford had the Bruins’ number last year, with two of the Bruins’ three losses coming at the hands of the Cardinal, with the third on the road at Washington State.

Second, the Bruins will no longer be playing at Drake Stadium. The UCLA women will christen shiny and new Wallis Annenberg Stadium, located on what used to the North Athletic Field. The new pitch seats about 2,500, significantly less than Drake, but the atmosphere will be exciting and intimate, placing fans much closer to the action.

The Bruins kick off the season this Friday, August 17, 2018, at 7 p.m. PT against Long Beach State, before playing three tough games on the road in the eastern United States.

Before evaluating this year’s squad, let’s take a quick look at who will not be back in 2018.

DEPARTURES

The Bruins will be without four graduating seniors, all of whom played significant minutes last season. Gabrielle Matulich, MacKenzie Cerda, Zoey Goralski, and Claire Winter (last year’s co-Captain) have graduated. Although some played in other positions as well, all of those departures were defenders on the back line and, if UCLA had an Achilles Heel last season, if was conceding goals.

RETURNING STARTERS

The Bruins return a core of outstanding players, including Canadian international, midfielder Jessie Fleming. Fleming had six goals and eight assists in 2017, and has a great work rate.

Joining her are two proficient facilitators and goal scorers, sophomore Ashley Sanchez (6 goals, 12 assists) and senior Anika Rodriguez (8 goals, 9 assists in 2017). Both Sanchez and Rodriguez are dynamic and exciting players.

Fleming, Sanchez, and Rodriguez are all stars but perhaps the biggest and most important returnee is senior Hailie Mace. Converted from defense to forward in 2017, Mace tore it up last season, scoring fifteen goals, second in the PAC 12. She has a knock going into 2018, but hopefully she gets healthy soon.

Sophomore Olivia Athens and junior Sunny Dunphy, both of whom played extensively last season, return as well. Sophomore, Viviana Villacorta, a tenacious midfielder who impressed with her performance in the College Cup, also returns for the Bruins.

So who is going to play defense?

It all starts with junior ‘keeper Teagan Micah, who started every game for UCLA last season, posting nine clean sheets. No goalkeeper in the nation played more minutes last season than Micah, with 2,268 minutes played.

Junior, Kaiya McCullough, who started every game last season, will continue to get the starting role and her experience should anchor the back line. Sophomore Karina Rodriguez, who played in all 25 games last year as a freshman, should continue to get minutes in defense. Redshirt sophomore Meghan Scudero, who appeared in 19 games last year, figures to get a look at a starting role, as does junior Jacey Pederson.

After that, who knows? There are a handful of defenders who are red shirt freshmen, true freshmen, and sophomores with little playing time. With the free substitution rules in college soccer, some of these others could get extended playing time as UCLA Head Coach Amanda Cromwell attempts to rebuild the back line.

NEW FACES

UCLA landed seven new recruits in the off-season. Coach Cromwell is on record stating that she did not think that these young women would make an immediate impact on the Bruins’ fortunes, but one can hope, right? Especially since several of these young women are defenders by trade. Although many of these freshmen can play multiple positions, expect several of them to red shirt this season.

PRESEASON RANKINGS

UCLA is ranked #2 in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer and the Unites States Coaches. Unfortunately, Stanford is ranked #1 in both of those polls and for good reason. Stanford returns almost all of its championship winning squad from last season.

HEAD COACH

This is Coach Cromwell’s sixth season. She might be Dan Guerrero’s best hire during his tenure. Cromwell led UCLA to the National Championship in her first season (2013), the “final eight” in 2014 (UCLA’s loss to Virginia in the quarterfinals was the Bruins’ only loss of the season), the final sixteen in 2016, and runners up to the champs in 2017.

Cromwell’s Bruins have gone 85-20-11 in her five seasons, with ten of those 20 losses occurring during the 2015 rebuilding year.

SCHEDULE

Aside from the usual challenging PAC 12 schedule, UCLA will face a number of tough games out of conference, starting with a brutal three game road trip to end the month of August and start of September. UCLA will play, in succession, #6 Penn State in College Station (August 25th), #4 Florida in Gainesville (August 31st), and #9 Florida State in Tallahassee (September 2nd). That’s three top ten teams in a row, on the road, in the summer heat of the east and south. Ouch.

UCLA plays several local non-conference teams as well, with Long Beach State and Pepperdine at home, and Loyola Marymount and San Diego State on the road.

Within the usual PAC 12 slate, the Bruins will play the Stanford Cardinal in Palo Alto on Thursday September 27th. That one will be televised on the PAC 12 Networks. Circle your calendars.

OUTLOOK

This team has what it takes to reach the Final Four of the College Cup, held in Cary, North Carolina this season. UCLA has the talent to win it all but, if certain teams play up to their potential, UCLA could face locals like Duke (#7, whom UCLA beat on penalties in the semi-finals last season), North Carolina (#4), or South Carolina (#8, and the other “Final Four” team last season) in the College Cup. And, of course, there is Stanford. UCLA is very, very good, but so are Stanford, North Carolina, Duke, and a handful of other teams.

The 2018 iteration of the UCLA Women’s Soccer Team should be a fun to watch and high scoring. I worry about the defense against elite competition.

How do you think that this team will fare? Can Coach Cromwell take this team back to the promised land? Let us know in the comments below.