For the first time all season, No. 1 UCLA women’s soccer (7-0-0) was pinned back into its defensive third during extended stretches of a game. The team’s first top-10 opponent – No. 8 Virginia (4-2-0) – pressed them hard from the kickoff, making life difficult for the players possessing the ball.
The pressure created turnovers and those turnovers nearly turned into goals. In the game’s first 10 minutes, Cavalier attackers found themselves in dangerous positions around the Bruins’ box, but their shots did not test sophomore goalkeeper Teagan Micah.
“Virginia came out, just shot out of a cannon,” said UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell. “They were pressing us and doing stuff that we haven’t seen all year – not letting us take goal kicks short and build out of the back.”
The Bruins needed to adjust, and in the 11th minute, they made the Cavaliers pay for their wastefulness. Freshman midfielder Delanie Sheehan received the ball 40 yards from the goal. She picked up her head, saw freshman forward Ashley Sanchez making a run and hit a lofted ball over the defenders, right onto Sanchez’s foot.
Sanchez took a touch and slipped it past Virginia goalkeeper Laurel Ivory – Sanchez’s former teammate with the U.S. U-17 National Team – into the back of the net.
UCLA claimed the lead against the run of play and would go on to win a high-energy back-and-forth battle 2-1, continuing its undefeated start to the season.
“It was two really good teams battling in a playoff atmosphere,” said redshirt senior midfielder Claire Winter. “Both teams were going at it, fighting from minute one to minute 90.”
Despite the early goal, the Bruins failed to take over the game in the first half. When they were a pass or two away from creating strong scoring opportunities, their execution was lacking and the ball would wind up at a Cavalier defender’s foot or roll harmlessly out of bounds.
As halftime approached, Virginia was back on the front foot. This time, the Cavaliers punished the Bruins for their mistakes.
The referee blew for a foul just outside the box in the 38th minute. Virginia forward Taylor Ziemer lined up her shot and placed it into the upper left corner of the net, leaving Micah rooted to her spot on the line.
With the game tied and the Cavaliers continuing to threaten, the Bruins shuffled their formation.
“We went to a 3-5-2 (after halftime),” Cromwell said. “We wanted to give them a different look – a two front with some wide mids – to see if we could press them a bit more.”
UCLA’s more attack-minded formation allowed them to keep possession longer. The goal, however, came against the run of play again, during a period of sustained pressure by Virginia.
After forcing a turnover in midfield, sophomore midfielder Jessie Fleming took the ball and charged forward at the Cavalier defense. Approaching the 18-yard box, Fleming zipped a pass to Sanchez at the top of the semicircle, and Sanchez sent a first-time through ball into senior defender MacKenzie Cerda’s path.
Cerda made no mistake, finishing from a tight angle to the far post, scoring her third goal this season and giving UCLA a 2-1 lead.
“One of the things we talked to Cerda about was that she needed to make more of a commitment to get forward,” Cromwell said. “Last weekend against BYU and Weber State, she was a little conservative about getting forward.”
The Bruins saw out the victory on the strength of their possession and ability to keep the Cavaliers from fashioning an open look on goal.
They passed their first stern test of the season and freshmen got some much-needed experience against a top-10 opponent.
“Getting experience early on, especially for the freshmen, who don’t really have the experience against big teams, is necessary for the postseason,” said senior wingback Zoey Goralski. “Getting that early on, where we can teach them the ropes, is really helpful.”
Sanchez, the No. 1 freshman in the national recruiting class, turned in a man-of-the-match performance and showcased her ability throughout the game.
“She showed why she’s the elite player she is,” Cromwell said.