How transfer student-athletes have changed the game for women’s soccer
Members of UCLA women’s soccer share a moment of camaraderie. (Juliet Zhang/Daily Bruin)
Nov. 7, 2023 5:20 p.m.
This post was updated Nov. 7 at 10:55 p.m.
The NCAA transfer portal changed the recruitment landscape when it launched five years ago, making it easier to connect athletes and teams with mutual goals.
But it wasn’t until 2021, when a rule requiring transfer athletes to sit out at their new school for a year was eliminated, that the portal truly began to pick up steam. That same year, the NCAA began allowing student-athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness.
More than 20,000 Division I athletes entered the transfer portal in 2022.
In such a rapidly changing landscape, many coaching staffs have completely reinvented their recruitment strategies. For instance, 37.6% of UCLA football’s starters were transfers last season, according to ESPN.
While UCLA women’s soccer hasn’t built its team around transfers the way many football programs across the country have, it still leverages the transfer portal to its advantage. There are currently four transfer students on the Bruins’ roster of 32, two of whom have been regulars in the team’s starting 11.
“We put ourselves in a position where if there are players that enter the portal that could help us, then those are conversations we can have,” said coach Margueritte Aozasa. “I’ve been really proud of how we’ve used the portal in our time being here.”
The second-year head coach added that the NCAA is seeing fallout from early recruiting, and she hopes the portal helps student-athletes find the best situations for themselves.
Two of UCLA’s transfer players are graduate students, including defender Emily Pringle, who moved to Westwood this year following an undergraduate career at Pennsylvania.
The Ivy League is the only conference that does not allow graduate students to compete as student-athletes, so with her extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pringle looked to the portal to find another program to join for her fifth year.
Pringle said the combination of academics, athletics and proximity to home influenced her decision. Hailing from La Jolla, California, her family can now come to almost every home game, unlike when she was on the East Coast.
She added that her teammates and coaches have been welcoming throughout the process.
“I really love the coaches. I love the people I’ve met on the team,” Pringle said. “It just ended up working out here, and I’ve loved it.”
Graduate student forward Ally Cook transferred to UCLA prior to the 2022 season after three years at Oregon and was also motivated to be near home, which for Cook is Coto de Caza, California.
Cook said that growing up, she dreamed of playing for Stanford or UCLA.
“I wrote that down when I was 8,” Cook said. “And then now when I actually transferred here, I was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of cool. My goal, I really achieved it.’”
Old versus new
Student-athletes transferring to other schools on the West Coast have produced several reunion matchups.
In August, UCLA tallied its only loss of the season when it traveled to BYU, the program to which former Bruin Ellie Walbruch transferred this year. Walbruch notched a goal and an assist against her former team that night.
After the match, Aozasa said the team was happy for her success, even though it lost.
“We were kind of joking – I wish her all the best,” Aozasa said. “I don’t know if I would have chosen this exact game, but that’s OK. We’re happy for her.”
Later this season, UCLA hosted California at Wallis Annenberg Stadium, welcoming back former Bruin defender Kylie Kerr, who transferred to the Golden Bears this season as a graduate student. Senior defender Maya Evans and junior defender Ayo Oke had done the reverse, making their way to Westwood from Berkeley in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
Once again, a transfer student was able to take advantage of knowing their opponent – but this time, it was in the Bruins’ favor.
Oke scored her first goal with UCLA in that game and led the Bruins to a 2-0 victory over her former team. That night, Oke said the Golden Bears know her style of play really well, but she can say the same for them.
“It’s been seven, eight months of development, so I would like to say that I’m a new player now, so I feel like they know some of my old antics but not the new things I learned,” Oke said. “And it goes both ways. Since I know them, they also know me a little bit, so it was just a good match.”
Aozasa added after the Cal match that she thought Oke had been playing on another level against her team and wanted to make a statement.
Adjusting to a new team
In addition to new dynamics on the pitch between opponents, transfer student-athletes also have to navigate new relationships within their own team.
Many of them come into their new program with years of collegiate experience under their belt, but adjusting to a new team and coaching staff takes time.
Pringle said she’s learned so much in just a few months.
“Honestly, everyone’s made it a super easy adjustment,” Pringle said. “This team is really about the relationships you build with people, and they don’t just say that – they also show it. I felt so comfortable just conditioning, even though I’m older and coming into a new environment.”
Cook said the team is very inclusive and made transferring to UCLA easy.
Now finishing up her second and final season with the Bruins, she doesn’t want to leave.
“That’s all credit to the team itself and the team culture,” Cook said. “People are just really genuine and want to know you and get to know you.”
Despite the adjustment process they may face both on and off the field, transfer student-athletes have proven integral to UCLA’s success this season. Cook ranks second on the team with nine goals this year, while Oke has been a constant on a back line that has helped the Bruins record 11 shutouts this season.
And given the current trends within collegiate athletics, more transfers may find a new home with the Bruins in the future.
“I feel like I’m becoming part of the team more and more each game and figuring out how to play with the people around me each game,” Oke said. “It’s only up from here.”