It wasn’t a tale of two halves for No. 11 UCLA women’s soccer in Friday’s match against No. 25 Pepperdine, but essentially of two entirely different games.
Though the match ended in a 3-0 victory for the Bruins (5-2-0), the Waves’ defense stymied the visitors for much of the first 45 minutes, as Pepperdine (5-3-1) stationed its defenders deep into its third of the pitch and frequently double-teamed UCLA’s forwards as they approached the box. The Bruins amassed just two shots in the first half, the fewest shots they have accumulated in any first half this season.
On defense, UCLA was challenged several times, especially off of failed corner kicks, which led to counterattacks initiated by Pepperdine forwards Bri Visalli and Rylee Baisden.
“Our corner kicks were horrible,” said coach Amanda Cromwell. “We kept floating it into the keeper’s hands and when she throws the ball, its off to the races. They had four quality shots in the first half because of our poor corner kicks.”
Both teams exited the first half scoreless, though the Waves had more shots and a critical opportunity in the 20th minute when forward Christina Settles whipped a shot wide left of freshman goalie Teagan Micah and the goal. Neither team took advantage of their opponents’ mistakes early on.
The Bruins made sure that wouldn’t be the case in the second half.
Just under five minutes into the second period, defender Kaiya McCullough received a lob pass and dribbled the ball deep into Pepperdine’s territory. The freshman then passed it to senior midfielder Annie Alvarado, who threaded a ground pass to senior forward Darian Jenkins in the box. Jenkins curved a shot with her right foot past a sliding Hannah Seabert, the Pepperdine goalie, giving UCLA the lead.
The goal was orchestrated by McCullough, who risked advancing up the field away from her defensive position to capitalize on the opportunity.
“For center back, it is definitely kind of picking and choosing when to go,” McCullough said. “I just saw and opportunity and dove right into it, and I was lucky enough to be able to control it and find the open pass.”
It was just the beginning for UCLA.
A minute and 20 seconds later, sophomore defender Hailie Mace launched a pass from near-midfield to junior Gabby Matulich, who was making down the left side. The midfielder snatched the pass with her left foot, evaded the lone defender covering her, then hooked a long shot that sneaked into the top right corner. It was Matulich’s first goal of the season.
With the Waves down but not out, the Bruins didn’t let up. Pepperdine couldn’t hold possession for long and UCLA’s offense continued to unravel what was an impenetrable defense in the first half.
All of the Bruin defenders were venturing up the field at this point. This time it was redshirt junior Zoey Goralski that skipped a sky-high lob pass into the Waves’ box from midfield. Senior Gabbi Miranda, making just her third appearance of the season, propelled into the air as Seabert gave chase. The midfielder was nearly tackled as she hopped into the air just in time to float a backward header into the net.
“I timed my run and magically got a little higher than the keeper,” Miranda said. “It was amazing and it comes down to how well our team is meshing right now. Our synergy is just insane.”
The rapid succession of goals proved too much for Pepperdine to overcome, as UCLA’s back line became more accustomed to the Waves’ formation and tactics. It was the fourth shutout of the season for a Bruin defense that McCullough said is still piecing things together.
“Our back line has learned to work off of each other and communicate,” McCullough said. “We’ve been coming in sync and are learning to adapt to adversity that all of these top-level teams are throwing at us.”
While the Bruins’ offense broke through and the defense stifled the Waves’ counterattack-based strategy, there is still room for improvement, Cromwell said.
“We are still a work in progress obviously,” Cromwell said. “We are finding our best lineup and our best combinations. But we’ve been a lot better in being precise on defending stuff, defending corner kicks and placement to execute runs.
Where are the Olympians?
For the first time since she arrived in Westwood, freshman midfielder Jessie Fleming did not make her way onto the pitch. The Canadian Olympian leads the team with five goals this year, but was kept out of the entire match.
“She got a little knock yesterday so we were just being cautious today,” Cromwell said. “She could’ve played but it didn’t make sense in her playing.”
Another freshman phenom Mallory Pugh, who dazzled spectators in Brazil during the 2016 Olympics as a member of the USA national team, will not be donning a blue and gold UCLA jersey anytime this year.
The forward, along with freshman midfielder Marley Canales, will redshirt the current season, as both will participate in this year’s U-20 World Cup in Papua New Guinea as members of the USA squad.