Sunday, August 18

Women’s soccer midfielders blend strengths to unify team

Midfielder Anika Rodriguez is leading the team with eight assists and is third overall with 22 points. The redshirt freshman has started in all 16 games this season. ( Diana Luna/Daily Bruin)

Midfielder Anika Rodriguez is leading the team with eight assists and is third overall with 22 points. The redshirt freshman has started in all 16 games this season. ( Diana Luna/Daily Bruin)

They’re couriers on the pitch, the pieces that connect the puzzle. They stretch the field, create opportunities and occasionally tally goals.

Ultimately, midfielders play a critical role for UCLA women’s soccer. But unlike other midfield crews across the country, the four starters aren’t cookie-cutter copies of one another. They each possess their own distinct skill set.

And when put together, the crew unifies the team on both offense and defense.

“For a midfield, you have to all bring something different to the table,” said redshirt freshman midfielder Anika Rodriguez. “Having our different strengths and weaknesses and being able to balance each other out perfectly is special and unique to this team.”

Midfielders have recorded the most points for the No. 9 Bruins (12-3-1, 6-1-1 Pac-12) this season. As a group, the four starters have notched 16 goals and 16 assists, already surpassing the totals of last year’s entire midfield crew.

But even with an evident chemistry on the field, each owns a distinguishable mindset.

For senior midfielder Gabbi Miranda, defense is the focus. The veteran acts as extra support near the backfield and provides bursts of energy that create a smooth transition for offensive runs upfield.

“Every header is mine, that’s my mentality,” Miranda said. “I want to win every single header and also to be the pivot. It’s absolutely key for me to be that one player to stay in the middle of the field changing the point of attack.”

[Related: Miranda scores game-winning goal as UCLA downs Washington State]

Rodriguez’s territory lies in the opponents’ third.

Creativity – splitting defenders, locating open spaces and feeding teammates – is her cornerstone. Using her tactical instinct and developed dribbling skills, the attacking midfielder has gathered a team-leading eight assists, along with two goals.

“I see the game a little bit differently than an average player,” Rodriguez said. “I see it with more of the little things that I find. That’s what (coach) Amanda (Cromwell) has asked from me – to come in and make my own – and I think I’ve really done that well.”

Freshman midfielder Jessie Fleming sweeps across the pitch continually, chasing the ball wherever it is. The Canadian Olympian stands just 5-foot-4 but preserves possession of the ball even against more physical players.

[Related: Jessie Fleming attributes soccer expertise to track, hockey roots]

But around Westwood, the attacking midfielder is known for her goal-scoring ability. Fleming leads the club with 10 goals and boasts a shots-on-goal percentage of 71 percent, the highest on the team of players with more than 10 shots.

In a counterbalanced midfield, senior Annie Alvarado is the leader of the group.

From a vital substitute during her freshman campaign to a team captain this season, Alvarado’s role has altered based on whatever the club needs from her.

In previous seasons, she deemed herself a holding midfielder. But this year, Alvarado’s duty focuses on her presence and versatility as a player, specifically on offense, she said.

“Whatever the team needs at certain points in the game, if it’s for me to hold, for me to attack, that’s what I want to do,” Alvarado said. “I want to do whatever is needed from me in that time, and I think that’s my role – fulfilling the needs of the team at specific moments of the game.”

Together, the four midfielders act as the nervous system for UCLA, shifting across the entire field and maintaining the rhythm of play. While each athlete sports differences in her style of play and mentality, they are integrated as one unit – one that holds the team together.

“Each one of us brings a unique skill set,” Miranda said. “However, we all have the same mindset in terms of what our midfield needs to do for us to win and it’s fantastic. We have really good synergy and we’re really fluid, which is the best part.”

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