UCLA soccer goes back to the College Cup to try to win its second NCAA title.
When she started her UCLA tenure, Margueritte Aozasa couldn’t help but notice the challenge waiting on her calendar. The schedule she inherited from the previous coaching staff featured No. 2 Duke and No. 1 North Carolina in consecutive road games over Labor Day weekend. They were UCLA’s fifth and sixth games of the season. Aozasa, a first-time coach, could have opted for a schedule change.
Instead she told her players to take it as a learning opportunity.
The Bruins aced the early test, fending off a 27-15 shot differential with two game-winning goals from forward Reilyn Turner and a career high-tying nine saves from Lauren Brzykcy against Duke. In the late-summer North Carolina humidity, they suddenly braced themselves for greater goals.
“That’s when we all realized that we’re so capable of doing it,” senior Sunshine Fontes said of the possibility of getting to the College Cup.
Now three months after the attention-grabbing wins, the Bruins return to the same state where they solidified their status as national championship contenders hoping to seal the deal with an NCAA title.
UCLA will face fellow No. 1 seed Alabama on Friday at 5:30 p.m. PST in the national semifinal in Cary, N.C., with the winner playing No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 North Carolina at 3 p.m. PST in Sunday’s final.
Alabama (23-2-1) will make its first College Cup appearance after a record-breaking season behind forward Riley Mattingly Parker and defender Reyna Reyes, both Hermann Trophy semifinalists. The Crimson Tide are one of two teams, along with Notre Dame, to have multiple players named to the 15-person semifinalist list for college soccer’s top individual honor.
The Bruins (20-2-1) are back in the College Cup for the first time since 2019 and hunting for the program’s second NCAA title.
UCLA’s championship potential came into focus as it kept the No. 1 ranking for nine weeks after upsetting Duke and North Carolina and rolled up a school-record 13 wins to start the season.
While the early season success signaled to Aozasa that her team had potential, it was a late-season flop that solidified her belief. UCLA’s 2-0 loss to USC in the season finale “really put our backs against the wall,” Aozasa said. Then she watched her team fight back in the postseason.
“Any time you get your team responding well, believing in each other, the words that they’re using, the phrases that they’re using both on and off the field in high-pressure situations, [that] gave us a glimpse as a staff what they’re capable of,” Aozasa said.
The Bruins proved their mettle in a nervy 1-1 draw against Central Florida in the second round of the NCAA tournament. UCLA conceded a goal in the 35th minute but fired back three minutes later for the equalizer. After two scoreless overtime periods, Aozasa recalled the support and love her players showed each other entering the penalty shootout. She knew the Bruins weren’t going to lose.
“Since then, the energy’s been great,” Aozasa said.
After advancing 3-0 on penalty kicks, UCLA held Northwestern scoreless in the round of 16 and used an overtime goal from freshman Sofia Cook against Virginia to punch its ticket to the semifinals. It was Cook’s first game-winning goal on a balanced roster that features five players with multiple game-winners this season, the most of any team remaining in the tournament.
Whether UCLA had the talent to make a long postseason run was never a question for Aozasa, a former Stanford assistant who helped the Cardinal to NCAA championships in 2017 and 2019. Turning the talent in Westwood into trophies was the last step.
Bridging the gap was a top priority for Aozasa when she was interviewing for the coaching position last year. Returning to the biggest college stage in her first year at the helm was “a little validating,” she said, but it hasn’t fulfilled her ultimate mission yet.
“I’m really happy that we’ve got this far,” Aozasa said, “but obviously the ultimate goal is to win the whole thing.”