The Bruins moved up three spots in the rankings since the end of last season.
No. 4 UCLA women’s soccer finished its 2018 season as the No. 7 team in the nation, but with only two seniors graduated, an 11-player incoming freshman class and an all-American transfer, the Bruins are a top-five team heading into 2019.
“We don’t really pay much attention to what we are in the beginning – we want to be No. 1 at the end,” said rising junior midfielder Olivia Athens. “Our expectation is just to win Pac-12, and then once we do that, hopefully win a national championship.”
Between injuries and national team call-ups, there was rarely a moment in 2018 when the Bruins had a full roster.
Then-redshirt junior forward Anika Rodriguez was UCLA’s leading scorer before she tore her ACL in early October. Then-sophomore midfielder Marley Canales returned to the field Sept. 30 after recovering from a knee injury she sustained in the spring, then-junior goalkeeper Teagan Micah missed a few weeks after suffering a concussion Sept. 21 and then-junior defender Jacey Pederson underwent surgery in early fall.
The prospect of fielding a full-strength roster was further diminished when then-senior defender/forward Hailie Mace and then-junior midfielder Jessie Fleming missed the first half of the season to play with the U.S. and Canadian national teams, respectively.
Coach Amanda Cromwell said this year’s freshman class, the transfer of junior defender Lucy Parker from LSU and the return of top talent will add to the roster’s depth.
“Depth is huge, especially when we had some injuries last year. We had people gone with World Cup qualifying, and early on with the U-20 World Cup. It was an issue for us,” Cromwell said. “Hopefully, this season, it’ll be a positive.”
The freshmen have already competed with the Bruins at the World University Games, which took place in Napoli, Italy, on July 3-14. UCLA went 2-2 to place ninth in the tournament.
Incoming freshman midfielder Mia Fishel scored two goals in four games and incoming freshman defender Brianne Riley was a constant in the starting lineup.
“Our incoming freshmen have already been put to work, so they’re doing really well,” Micah said. “I think depth, coming later in the season when people get (injured), it’s huge.”
In addition to a top freshman class, the Bruins returned all but one starter from last year’s team that went to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. UCLA also added Parker, who was named an all-American in 2018 as a Tiger.
Fleming, rising junior forward Ashley Sanchez and Parker were all named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watchlist. The award is presented to the most outstanding collegiate soccer players of the year.
“The rankings really don’t give us the expectations. It’s kind of like how we feel, even before the rankings,” Cromwell said. “All of that goes back to the talent we have on the field and what we want to accomplish on a daily basis. We know we’re as good as anybody in the country – there’s no doubt about that – so it’s just a matter of putting things together and getting better each day.”
Athens said the Bruins came into preseason with a clear picture of what they needed to work on based on the World University Games. The day-to-day has been about trying out a new formation and working on defending, the rising junior said.
UCLA will kick off its 2019 season with two exhibition matches Aug. 16 against Loyola Marymount at home and Aug. 18 at UC Irvine.