UCLA women’s soccer had a rough go of it Thursday night against an unranked Utah team that has yet to claim a conference victory this season.
The Utes (5-7-2, 0-5-1 Pac-12) followed the underdog textbook almost to perfection. They stayed compact at the back, put numbers behind the ball and took advantage of a set piece to tie the game in the second half, but a late winner from sophomore midfielder Jessie Fleming handed the No. 2 Bruins (12-0-2, 5-0-1) a 2-1 win.
“Utah’s a good team, well-organized defensively,” Fleming said. “We definitely had trouble getting behind them tonight, but we kept trying and kept knocking at the door and got the chances we deserved.”
Given Utah’s defensive strategy, UCLA adopted a patient approach. The team seemed content to pass the ball around in the attacking third, probing for scoring opportunities rather than forcing low-percentage looks.
The Bruins appeared to have their breakthrough around the 20th minute when junior forward Hailie Mace hit a long ball over the top to redshirt sophomore forward Anika Rodriguez.
The assistant referee, however, raised his flag for offsides, the first of many borderline offsides calls against UCLA.
“I’ve been seeing on video quite a few calls that aren’t offside, so after the fact, I’m seeing them,” said UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell. “I want to get in the refs’ ears about it so they know. Our players are working hard to make good runs and I want them to be rewarded for that.”
In the second half, the Bruins came out and nearly snatched a goal two minutes in. Sophomore forward Sunny Dunphy got free on the right side and charged into the box. Her low shot looked destined to nestle in the far corner until the Utes’ goalkeeper got down quickly to keep it out.
They didn’t have to wait much longer for the goal.
In the 54th minute, Fleming received the ball to the right of the semicircle and kept control amid pressure from two defenders, before rolling a pass to freshman midfielder Delanie Sheehan who let it slide across her body. She turned and unleashed a left-footed strike that gave the goalkeeper no chance.
“(Fleming) gave me a great pass,” Sheehan said.
Utah struck back four minutes later.
The Utes won a corner and the cross into the box eluded the Bruins, giving Utah defender Haylee Cacciacarne space to equalize.
“I wasn’t really happy with the goal against on the corner,” Cromwell said. “That was the first corner goal we’ve given up all year.”
Utah did what underdogs do – bunker in at the back and steal a goal off a set piece.
UCLA, on the other hand, failed to take advantage of its set pieces.
“Whether it’s the runs, the timing of the runs or the actual service in, we need to make better decisions and execute better,” Cromwell said.
Some chances also went begging. Another offsides call disallowed what the Bruins thought was a go-ahead goal.
Fleming got a golden opportunity to put the team back ahead when senior wingback Zoey Goralski teed her up after beating her defender. The ensuing shot sailed over the bar and the minutes continued to run off the clock.
Instead of another overtime, Fleming redeemed herself in a game in which she dazzled with her ball control and passing ability.
Twenty yards out, Fleming had defenders in front of her. She took a look up, saw the goalkeeper off her line and sent a floater towards the top right corner.
The goalkeeper stepped back and dove, but the shot eluded her grasp. UCLA was up 2-1 and kept Utah from getting a chance to seal the hard-fought win.
“In the end, we ground it out pretty well,” Cromwell said. “We had the majority of the possession. I liked how we pinged it around.”