NCAA Soccer – A Retrospective – UCLA: The Golden Age

On February 1, 2011 or thereabouts, a group of young soccer players put pen to paper with UCLA, with the Bruins inking what looked to be, on paper, one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time. It’s easy to forget that these players were delving into the unknown to a certain degree, with the program in the middle of a coaching transition. Jill Ellis had taken a spot within the U.S. Soccer hierarchy, leaving assistant B.J. Snow to take helm of the club. That he managed to keep the class together should not be overlooked.

National titles aren’t won on paper and aren’t won in February, a fact too evident for the Bruins just two calendar years later. The Golden Generation that was supposed to bring a national title to Westwood hadn’t won anything in two years under Snow, instead still looking for all the world like playing second fiddle to Stanford in perpetuity. Looking for a national title, UCLA instead hadn’t even made it to the College Cup, with Snow’s tenure ending in a disappointing defeat to the Card, the second time they had taken a lead against Stanford, only to buckle under the pressure and lose.

Snow’s shortcomings with the Bruins was proof enough that winning titles is about more than just playing fantasy football with the cream of the crop of youth footy. The hiring of UCF head coach Amanda Cromwell was mooted as a masterstroke by most, and the general popularity of UCLA’s triumph on Sunday underlines the respect and admiration the former USWNT defensive midfielder has collected during her time coaching. It was hard to disagree with Cromwell being the perfect coach for the situation in Westwood. A club that had struggled mentally in the biggest games was being wed to a coach whose previous club often did their best work when the odds were longest.

Cromwell didn’t face long odds upon taking control of UCLA, but it wasn’t necessarily a glamour cruise either. The new manager had to bring Ally Courtnall back into the fold after the full-back seemed set to focus on her track career with the Bruins. She also inherited a squad full of youth superstars but had to find a way to mold all that talent into a working framework, including going against some of the tactics she utilized at UCF. Early signs were promising, but the Bruins also followed up a dominant win at Notre Dame with a real clunker at North Carolina, where the Bruins were fortunate to lose by just one.

Cromwell’s Bruins hardly let the setback define the season though, as they wouldn’t lose another game all season. There were some soporific draws against the likes of Washington and Utah in the league, but UCLA still marched to a league title in a very competitive Pac-12, vanquishing rivals Stanford at long last in the process. UCLA’s resume clearly looked to be good enough for a coveted #1 seed and a comfortable march towards their ultimate target destination, Cary.

Fatefully, and perhaps crucially, UCLA was controversially overlooked for a #1 seed, likely in favor of Virginia Tech, who it has to be said didn’t really do their case for inclusion any harm by making it to Cary. It wasn’t just missing out on the #1 seed that rankled in many Westwood quarters, as the Bruins were given a murderous draw in comparison with some of their title rivals, with Stanford and North Carolina both looming before a possible date at the College Cup. UCLA hardly broke a sweat in dispatching overmatched San Diego State and Kentucky, but the real march towards glory began in Westwood against their Pac-12 nemesis.

Then again, having to conquer their conquerers was decidedly Shakespearean for the Bruins. It’s easy to overlook the fact that UCLA’s record against North Carolina was notoriously poor, with many of the Bruins’ defeats to the Heels lopsided and demoralizing. UCLA’s wins over Stanford and UNC weren’t breathtaking spectacles by any stretch of the imagination, but perhaps that was the point. Here was a Bruins program so defined by being all flash before the chips were down, instead finding ways to win at all costs. They may not have been favorites walking into Cary, but it was difficult envisioning these Bruins falling to the same fate that some of their predecessors had when the lights shone brightest.

UCLA saved much of their best for the last weekend of the season, making title favorites Virginia look staggeringly mortal in the semi-final. The possession imbalance that had seen the Cavs drown so many opponents under withering pressure was non-existent, as UCLA overcame a rare error at the back from Abby Dahlkemper to drive themselves forward for a fantastic equalizer from Sarah Killion to Ally Courtnall, whose star may have risen more than anyone else in Cary this past weekend. Shootouts are never sure things, but the feeling that the Bruins weren’t about to fall having fought their way back from the brink was unshakable.

With all due respect to Florida State, Sunday had the feeling of a coronation. Perception meshed with reality in Cary, as only the most partisan for Seminole fans could argue that their side wasn’t played off the pitch by the rampant Bruins. Other than a brief period of danger brought about by set pieces late in the second half of normal time, it was less a matter of ‘if’ than “when, who, and how”, for Cromwell’s side. The Bruins’ midfield was snapping at FSU’s heels all afternoon, keeping the ACC side from building any sort of momentum through possession. Dagny Brynjarsdottir was rendered a passenger, while Jamia Fields, so effective on Friday, was pinned back by Caprice Dydasco and Taylor Smith on the right flank.

Irony of ironies, it was not two of UCLA’s nexus of stars that combined for the goal that will long be remembered in Bruins lore. Junior center-back Megan Oyster is a U20 international but largely the unknown soldier in UCLA’s backline. She entered with one goal and one assist. In three years. And yet she was the one that took the initiative to burst forward from her central defense role past weary Florida State legs and unleashed a slide rule pass that did what so many other passes from so many other Bruins couldn’t on Sunday, namely leave the Seminole defense without answers. Sophomore Kodi Lavrusky, overshadowed this week and in other weeks by some of her attacking teammates pounced on her moment for glory, sliding it under Kelsey Wys after a beautiful diagonal run into the box.

It was perhaps emblematic of UCLA’s rise, as a team, to this point. Two of the club’s less talked about stars combining for a sublime goal worthy of winning any final. So many years of hard luck and heartbreak shed in a few inspired seconds of brilliance. Outside of the unfortunate runners-up, you could feel the joy ripple from those ecstatic scenes in Cary.

Social media is still a relatively new method of communication within college soccer circles. I may not be the one to delve into historical perspective, but in recent memory, it’s hard to conceive of a final victory that’s been as popular with the masses. The sheer number of congratulations directed towards head coach Amanda Cromwell and her staff is no coincidence and certainly no accident. For all the negativity, controversy, and hard feelings that this sport sometimes engenders, Sunday’s result was a beacon of sunshine on a dreary day in Cary. I cringe when I hear the words “the right way” used in a soccer context, but it’s hard to argue that the “right team” didn’t lift the trophy.

It seems ludicrous to invoke the cliched phrase of “the best is yet to come” off the back of the Bruins completing a season in which they lost once and put up an utterly dominating performance in the NCAA Tournament to leave little doubt as to who the best time in the nation was come December. But then you realize UCLA has ten starters returning, with midfielder Jenna Richmond the lone expected departure. There’s always the recruiting pipeline that’s been fostered for decades here, and I suspect Sunday’s win will do recruiting efforts no harm in Westwood. Repeating is almost an impossible task these days, with injuries a threat and rivals always ready to nip at a champion’s heels. But Sunday felt special. Not the start, not the end, but ultimately a significant and memorable chapter in what may eventually be a golden age for Amanda Cromwell’s triumphant UCLA Bruins.

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