Out of all 22 varsity teams at UCLA, women’s soccer is the first to get back into action after the summer.
“It’s kind of a cool thing to know that we have to set the tone for all the sports here,” said coach Amanda Cromwell. “I think the girls like that.”
UCLA will host two exhibition matches at Drake Stadium on Friday and Sunday, playing Canada FISU and Cal State Bakersfield, respectively, and marking the first team events of the 2017-2018 academic year.
The team was eliminated in the round of 16 last season and finished fourth in the Pac-12 behind Stanford, USC and Colorado.
Cromwell said her team will face some high-quality non-conference teams like Santa Clara, BYU and Virginia, which will help ready them for the tough contenders in the Pac-12.
“In the conference, anyone can beat anyone,” Cromwell said. “So we can’t take any breaks in conference – we know that. We have to use every game in the non-conference to help us prepare.”
A total of 10 new recruits recently joined the team’s ranks, with notable incoming players like first-ranked forward/midfielder Ashley Sanchez and seventh-ranked defender Karina Rodriguez.
“Ashley Sanchez probably comes in with the deepest pedigree as far as her national team experience,” Cromwell said. “You look at all of our freshmen, they have some pretty deep experience with their respective national teams and clubs. They’re putting themselves in the running to be contributors right away.”
The team’s depth is promising, Cromwell said, despite the youthfulness and lack of collegiate experience in her underclassmen. UCLA was ranked ninth in the preseason polls, making it one of three Pac-12 teams in the Top 10.
“We’re not the most experienced across the board as far as college play goes, but if you bring in their collective experience from all facets of soccer they’ve played, it’s pretty impressive,” Cromwell said.
The team also returns veteran players and key assets like midfielder Jessie Fleming.
The sophomore led the team last season with 11 goals and 27 points, earning her the Freshman of the Year title from Top Drawer Soccer.
“The practices have been competitive and fast-paced, and I think everyone’s really ready to get started,” Fleming said. “I think there’s definitely an awareness of the talent we have in the room.”
Redshirt senior midfielder Claire Winter also said she thinks the team will be more solid across the board this year compared to last.
UCLA’s roster lost seven graduating seniors, including Darian Jenkins, who was the seventh pick in the National Women’s Soccer League draft in January.
“People are starting to click with each other regardless of how long they’ve been here,” said Winter, who is co-captaining this year’s team along with Fleming and defender Zoey Goralski.
Winter said the first few practices demonstrated the team’s high fitness level, which she thinks will be key this season.
“Every class that comes through UCLA women’s soccer is one of the top in the country, but this one is pretty special,” Winter said. “We just have to look as leaders to carry them with us and include them in our team culture. It doesn’t matter how much talent we have – we need to get everyone on the same page.”