How a rookie head coach led UCLA soccer to new heights

Marguerite Aozasa has guided the Bruins to the third-most wins in the NCAA this year. (Courtesy of UCLA Athletics)

UCLA head coach Margueritte Aozasa was in her office with her assistants on Nov. 8 when she saw that her player, sophomore Lilly Reale, was named the Pac-12 Defender of the Year. Half an hour later, Aozasa received the news through social media that she had won Coach of the Year.

The first rookie coach to win the honor, Aozasa has led the Bruins to a 17-2 record in the regular season and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And on Monday, they will compete in the College Cup final.

“It’s humbling,” she said of the award. “While I’m honored that this is an individual recognition, I really need to start a petition for it to be called ‘Staff of the Year’ because I’m just so thankful for my assistants and all our support staff. They really make my job possible.”

Aozasa is in her first year, but she’s familiar with what it takes to run a successful program. Having coached since she was 19 years old, Aozasa was an assistant at Stanford for seven years, guiding the team to two NCAA titles in 2017 and 2019 along with five Pac-12 titles from 2015-19.

She took over the Bruins program from Amanda Cromwell, who left to become head coach of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride but was placed on administrative leave less than two months into the season. A joint investigation between the NWSL and NWSL Players Association later substantiated claims of retaliatory behavior, leading to Cromwell’s termination.

Aozasa, a two-time captain and four-year starting defender for Santa Clara, wanted to turn UCLA into as much of a defensive powerhouse as an attacking engine. Her goal was to make the Bruins one of the best defensive teams in the country, and that’s exactly what they became. UCLA registered 12 shutouts in 19 games, their goals-against average of .474 tied for fourth in the nation, and Reale was named UCLA’s second-ever Pac-12 Defender of the Year.

Reale’s honor, especially, was a testament to the defensive strides UCLA made this year.

“She’s an incredible person and just very steady for us,” Aozasa said. “I think as a defender, it’s sometimes hard to gain recognition, especially on a good team.”

Off the field, the ingredients to UCLA’s recipe for success have been honesty and trust.

“I think transparency is really an expression of respect in a lot of ways,” Aozasa said. “And we try to be accessible and compassionate. I think those are really values of our staff, and so we’ve created a very strong, supportive, empowering environment for our players to play within it.”

After she was hired in the last week of 2021, Aozasa started out by meeting with every single player, sometimes for an hour. The chats were free-flowing. She wanted to know everything so she could assess how best to move forward.

“What’s your previous experience?”

“What do you want to get out of this?”

“What type of player are you?”

“What are your tendencies?”

She’d then explain her own goals, the changes she wanted to make to the team’s system and the identity she wanted the program to have.

“Everything we’ve done thus far starts with those relationships,” Aozasa said.

The trust the Bruins built during the preseason is reflected in their chemistry on the field, where they play without fear of making mistakes. A fun-loving group that laughs and dances through pressure-filled situations, the players embraced the staff from day one, which allowed Aozasa to introduce her plans quickly.

They also got closer through hard times. Just two months after Aozasa joined UCLA, she received the news that her former goalkeeper, Stanford’s Katie Meyer, had died by suicide.

“When she passed, the news was just … I hit the floor,” Aozasa said. “It just was so shocking. It was so upsetting.

“But in a weird way, her death and the conversations we had stemming from that as a team really accelerated the process of our team, building that trust between our staff and players.”

One of Aozasa’s goals has been to create an environment where mental health is a high priority. Meyer’s death not only opened conversations about mental health and challenges that student-athletes were facing, but it also brought Aozasa’s own mental well-being into sharp focus. And her players and the athletic department were there to help.

Two days after Meyer passed, one of UCLA’s older players called Aozasa.

“Margueritte,” the player said, “we talked as a team. You need to know that if you need to go there, we’re OK.”

“I was like, ‘Wow. Like, wow,’” recalled Aozasa. “I had not been there that long. I was so struck by the team’s support as I went through that loss personally.”

There were times Aozasa missed training to go to Stanford because that’s what she needed in those moments.

When UCLA kicked off its season in mid-August, the Bruins were closer than ever and ready to play for each other. In just their fourth and fifth games, they beat the top two teams in the nation, Duke followed by North Carolina and 21-time national champion coach Anson Dorrance.

Aozasa and Reale had six other Bruins join them on the Pac-12 awards list. Also named to the first team were forward Reilyn Turner — Nike’s first student-athlete signed to an NIL deal — and defender Quincy McMahon, while goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy and midfielder Sunshine Fontes received second-team honors. Forward Ally Cook, freshman midfielder Ally Lemos and midfielder Maricarmen Reyes were named to the third team. Lemos and midfielder Sofia Cook made the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team.

UCLA kicked off the NCAA tournament with a 4-1 win against Northern Arizona, then advanced on penalties against Central Florida. They beat Northwestern, Virginia and Alabama in succession to reach the championship match at 6 p.m. ET Monday.

“Try not to let it get bigger than it is, so that it doesn’t distract from what we’re really trying to do,” Aozasa said. “Can we play how we know we can play and bring some joy in the game, even though it is kind of a pressure-filled situation?”

Last year, UCLA lost to UC Irvine in the first round after winning 16 games in the regular season. On Monday night, all eyes will be on the No. 1 Bruins to see if they can not just flip the script but clinch the NCAA title, with the 2022 Pac-12 Coach of the Year leading the way.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.