Close games tend to end in devastating fashion.
After 90 minutes of physical play headlined by two comebacks, several highlight-reel goals and a handful of formation changes, No. 15 UCLA women’s soccer and No. 6 Florida were locked in a 3-3 tie.
But the game didn’t stay tied for long.
Early in the first period of extra time, Florida’s Savannah Jordan dribbled the ball down the right sideline, pushing past defenders into the UCLA penalty box. The standout forward attempted a cross to her teammates but it was deflected twice.
The ball ricocheted off freshman Kaiya McCullough’s foot into the shin of redshirt junior midfielder Claire Winter and then past UCLA goalie Teagan Micah for a goal. The unintentional deflection clinched the 4-3 victory for the Gators.
“We made some mistakes defensively that we haven’t been making and that led to some of their goals,” said coach Amanda Cromwell. “(Jordan’s) very strong with the ball. She pushes you off so it’s hard to regain our angles of support. That last goal – there could have been better angles to cover (her) sooner.”
Both teams offered explosive offensive attacks early on in the bout.
Less than three minutes into the contest, Florida players connected on a flurry of short passes deep into UCLA territory. Gators defender Julia Lester then launched a cross to Jordan, who hopped in between a pair of defenders and headed one past the leaping Micah.
It didn’t take long for the Bruins to counter with a goal of their own. In the fifth minute, senior forward Darian Jenkins received a throw-in, dribbled the ball out of the Gators’ penalty box and hooked a lob pass to Annie Alvarado, who converted on a diving header into the bottom left corner of the cage.
UCLA’s defense, which ceded no goals in the first two matches of the season, struggled to adjust to Florida’s offensive strategy in the first half.
The Gators started in a 3-5-2 formation, one unfamiliar to the Bruins. Florida’s midfielders controlled the middle of the pitch and were able to dictate the pace on offense, leading to multiple corner kicks and set pieces.
Despite denying several opportunities from corners, UCLA couldn’t squash a Florida free kick just outside the box in the 17th minute. Gators midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard lobbed one in the congested box, finding midfielder Gabby Seiler, who headed the ball off the chest of teammate Sarah Troccoli and into the goal.
“They changed things up in the first half – their formation was different than what we’d scouted,” Cromwell said. “They hadn’t played that all year, so credit to their coaches to kind of catch us off-guard.”
The Bruins hit their stride in the second half. Better communication and adaptation to the Gators’ defense allowed midfielders and defenders to journey up the pitch and contribute on offense.
The surge of goals continued, this time courtesy of freshman phenom – and 2016 Olympian – Jessie Fleming. The midfielder singlehandedly kept the Bruins alive in the game, scoring in the 65th minute on a header and in the 69th minute on a penalty kick, after redshirt freshman Anika Rodriguez was fouled in the box.
“We said at halftime that we wanted to go in and score a couple of goals,” Fleming said. “Anika made a really good run on the second goal and then the first goal. It was a perfect cross and I was on the end of it.”
Florida’s offense didn’t remain quiet once UCLA finally captured the lead. The Gators’ first counterattacks were stuffed by the Bruin defense but in the 73rd minute, Erika Nelson rocketed a deep pass from near-midfield to Jordan, who converted on another header for her second goal of the game.
Neither team could capitalize on its opportunities late in the match – UCLA missed wide on a shot and couldn’t net a corner kick in the final two minutes – before the misguided deflection in overtime provided a bleak end for the Bruins.
Even with the defensive mistakes, UCLA continued to demonstrate its offensive prowess. The Bruins have scored 10 goals this year, a feat that wasn’t accomplished until their ninth game last season. The defeat will offer many lessons as UCLA heads into its next match against defending NCAA champions No. 5 Penn State next week.
“We can learn a lot from this game offensively and defensively,” said redshirt junior Zoey Goralski. “Offensively, we scored three goals so that’s good. But defensively we need to tighten things up a bit – get in hard tackles and cover for each other.”
Contributing reports from Michael Hull, assistant sports editor.