Friday, 10:00 PM
(1) UCLA (18-0-2; 1st – Pac-12; WTSR – 1.50, 1st – Pac-12)
San Diego (10-7-2; 4th – WCC; WTSR – 0.93, 6th – WCC)
San Diego Made It In?
Yeah. The selection committee apparently broadening the pool of bubble teams bailed them out. And unlike some of their whinier WCC counterparts, the Toreros made the most of their non-conference opportunities in putting together a resume against RPI Top 50 teams that got them the nod in the end.
OK, Can The Toreros Conjure Up Memories Of Their Last NCAA Tournament Appearance?
For those not in the know, San Diego last made the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and faced UCLA as their second round opponent. The result was an infamous shootout win over the Bruins after a 1-1 draw that rocked the college soccer world and served as a serious referendum on the BJ Snow era of Bruins soccer. Sadly for San Diego, the odds of a repeat of that happening isn’t that great. These two teams have already squared off once this year. It was a match that ended in a 2-0 win for UCLA where the Bruins outshot USD by a 23-1 margin. It’s hard to believe that things have changed that month in the span of a few months.
Please Give Me Some Hope That This Isn’t Going To Be A Total Whitewash.
That’s easier said than done. The Toreros were an above average offense and just a bit above average defense in a pretty lackluster WCC this year. They definitely found their scoring touch in league play after some struggles in non-conference play and were shutout just once since September 12. The leading light is Jacqueline Altschuld, who scored all five of her goals in the league, with four of those goals being match winning strikes. Just as impressive was Nikki Pappalardo, who was a nice creative conduit with a team leading ten assists. Defensively though, San Diego is far too inconsistent to heavily tip for the huge upset. They’ve given up multiple goals in eight of nineteen matches, and shipping three to BYU and Santa Clara hardly bodes well.
OK, Beyond The First Round, Did The Committee Do UCLA Any Favors?
It’s difficult seeing the Bruins challenged too much until the Sweet Sixteen, where a few devilish possibilities could be awaiting. Pepperdine and UCLA have already played this season in Hawaii, a match which the Bruins dominated after a few early match scares. But any side with Lynn Williams and without too much of a home advantage for the Bruins has to be taken very seriously. The other side of the coin is that USC could very easily end up out of that draw as well. The Trojans battled pretty hard with UCLA in the regular season before falling late and will surely be itching for a rematch. And then barring something crazy, Virginia will be waiting in the Elite Eight. So UCLA isn’t about to have a cakewalk into the last four by any means.
But Really, UCLA’s A Giant Favorite To Win The Whole Thing Still, Right?
Oh yeah. The Bruins have just two blemishes on their record thus far, a draw against North Carolina in the opening match of the season in which they were in control for much of the match, and a draw at Arizona State where they bludgeoned the Sun Devils with shots but were undone by some underwhelming finishing. And scariest of all, UCLA may be hitting their form at just the right time. Since the comeback win against Stanford, the Bruins haven’t just won all their games, they haven’t even given up a goal. That’s seven straight matches, and some of the inconsistent finishing in the middle part of the season has been smoothed out, with the club only being held to less than two goals once. That stretch includes six goals against NCAA Tournament qualifiers Arizona and Washington. Be afraid.
Can Anyone Break Through The Great Wall of Westwood?
It’s not going to be easy. UCLA’s shutout streak is mentioned above, but the Bruins also have conceded just four goals all season. The likes of North Carolina and Pepperdine have been shut out, and some midseason kinks appear to have been worked out. The full-back duo of Caprice Dydasco and Ally Courtnall is the nation’s best, with both possessing tremendous athleticism and an innate ability to get up the line and keep the Bruins’ passing game flowing. The center-backs, Abby Dahlkemper and Megan Oyster work together like clockwork and sweep up anyone that gets close enough to penetrate the heart of the UCLA area. And if anyone does breach UCLA’s back four, they still have to deal with one of the nation’s best goalkeepers in Katelyn Rowland. If you want to nitpick, Oyster can be burned by an exceptional degree of pace, and the full-backs getting far up the field could open up space for rapid counters up the flanks. But that’s only going to help teams with truly top-tier weapons who can make the most of their limited opportunities. In short, this is one of the best defensive units we’ve seen in a while at this level and should dominate most opponents this tournament.
Oh, Great, They Can Score By The Bucket Too?
Yeah. Imagine being able to pull another top notch scorer off the bench in the second half of the league season. Kylie McCarthy only played in seven league games but netted five goals in those seven games, including two against USC. Her return was huge considering the club was missing Darian Jenkins for a chunk of time due to concussion issues, with Rosie White away on international duty. McCarthy’s rise has also been huge considering the aforementioned duo has struggled to score with any kind of consistency in the league. The top frontline option is still likely to be Taylor Smith, whose electric pace unsettles defenses and opens up holes for the rest of the club’s attacking weapons. Smith seems like a given for one starting spot, but the other two slots in the 4-3-3 may be up for grabs. How do you bench someone in McCarthy’s form? How Amanda Cromwell manages her forwards may be one of the most interesting selection decisions this tournament.
It goes without saying that anyone stopping UCLA has to stop the midfield. Sam Mewis is quite simply in the form of her life, with seven goals and nine assists in eleven league games putting her as the leader in the clubhouse for the Hermann Trophy. Mewis and Sarah Killion form an all-action duo in midfield that has slashed defenses to ribbons while squashing opposing attacks through the middle. Annie Alvarado has proven to be a competent option in the middle of the park as well, and the club can always lean on the likes of Lauren Kaskie in midfield or up front if needed. UCLA’s going to dominate the middle of the park against most opposition. But then you probably already knew that.
So Tell Me, How Doesn’t UCLA Win The National Title Again?
Well, if the Bruins score two or more goals, it’s curtains for anyone. That defense just isn’t going to give up multiple goals in all likelihood. The attack has been racking up goals with little in the way stopping them in Pac-12 play. You could probably accuse them of not having an elite striker…but that doesn’t matter as much when everyone can pound them in and when Mewis has a strike rate better than many forwards. An opponent’s best hope is to hold off the blue and gold tide and, like Arizona State, convert one of the very few opportunities to come their way. It’s probably going to be impossible for anyone before the Elite Eight.