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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.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

New USWNT Coach Emma Hayes Embracing the Challenge

United States Women's Head Coach Emma Hayes
The ex-Chelsea skipper has officially arrived in the US — now it's time to get down to business. (USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Emma Hayes has officially begun her tenure as USWNT manager ahead of the team’s June friendlies.

Hayes made the rounds on Thursday, appearing on the Today Show and speaking with select media about her goals and underlying principles with the team. It’s a quick turnaround for the decorated coach, who just won the WSL with Chelsea last weekend.

One thing that she won’t do, however, is shy away from the high expectations that come with managing the US. The squad is looking to reinstate its winning reputation at the Paris Olympics this summer following a disappointing World Cup in 2023. 

"I know the challenge ahead of me. There is no denying there is a gap between the US and the rest of the world," she told ESPN. "We have to acknowledge that winning at the highest level isn't what it was 10 years ago. It's a completely different landscape. And my focus is going to be on getting the performances required to play at a high level against the very best nations in the world."

While Hayes was formally hired six months ago to lead the USWNT, her deal stipulated that she remain with Chelsea through the conclusion of their season. In her stead, Twila Kilgore has led the team, with the coach "drip feeding subliminal messages" to the roster on Hayes’s behalf.

"It's a bit ass-upwards," Hayes joked to reporters. "I know about the staff, and the team, and the structure behind it. We got all of that. Now it's time, I need to be with the team."

With Olympics now just two months away, Hayes dropped hints this week regarding her thought process behind building the roster, saying there’s still time for players to make their case.

"You can't go to an Olympics with a completely inexperienced squad. We need our experienced players, but getting that composition right, that's my job between now and June 16th," she said on the Today Show.

"What I can say from my time [in the US] is, I've always loved the attitude towards performance and the expectation to give everything you've got," she later affirmed to reporters.

And as for winning gold?

"I'm never gonna tell anyone to not dream about winning," she added. "But… we have to go step by step, and focus on all the little processes that need to happen so we can perform at our best level.

"I will give it absolutely everything I've got to make sure I uphold the traditions of this team."

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