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Under new coach, UCLA soccer finally makes good on star talent

Margueritte Aozasa is the first coach to win an NCAA women’s soccer title in their debut season. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

UCLA won their second national championship on Monday night, but the takeaways from the match rightfully focused on the firsts.

Margueritte Aozasa became the first coach in women’s college soccer history to win an NCAA title in their first year on the job, as UCLA became the first team to overcome a 2-0 deficit in a championship victory, 3-2 over North Carolina in extra time.

The game itself was tightly contested, until Avery Patterson — UNC’s leading scorer — opened the floodgates with a brace after halftime to put the Tar Heels on the verge of their 23rd title. The result appeared all but settled with 10 minutes left in regulation, when UCLA’s Lexi Wright scored off a rebound to put her team back in it. With momentum behind them, the Bruins equalized off a controversial set piece that sent multiple players and the ball into the goal with only 17 seconds left in regulation.

By the second period of overtime, UCLA had made the comeback not only in scoring but also in belief, as a game that seemed destined for penalty kicks was saved from a tiebreaker by Maricarmen Reyes’ championship-winning goal.

The contest served up all the championship-level drama fans could want, and for UCLA, it also served as a breath of fresh air. The Bruins are known as a breeding ground for professional-ready talent, but before Monday night, they had only put all the pieces together for an NCAA championship once in 2013.

Jill Ellis recruited star players like Sydney Leroux and Lauren Holiday to UCLA during her tenure as head coach from 1999-2010 but never won a championship. She ultimately passed the program on to Amanda Cromwell to join the U.S. youth national teams, before eventually taking the reins of the U.S. women’s national team in 2014 and leading them to two World Cup titles.

The 2013 squad that went all the way to a title featured a host of World Cup champions and NWSL standouts alike. USWNT defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielder Sam Mewis headlined the group, but the roster also contained Gotham’s Taylor Smith, Houston’s Caprice Dydasco, Chicago’s Sarah Woldmoe, Orlando’s Megan Montefusco and Darian Jenkins, North Carolina’s Katelyn Rowland, and New Zealand international Rosie White.

That the Bruins could only turn what would now be considered a very competitive professional team into one national championship always proved puzzling, as did the team’s continued drought despite more years of quality talent. Former Bruins like Mallory Pugh (albeit for only one year), Ashley Sanchez, Hailie Mace, Jessie Fleming and Teagan Micah have all gone on to represent their national teams. Mia Fishel, who successfully made the early leap to the pro’s with UANL Tigres, might not be far behind.

Those teams from 2015-19 came up against a Stanford juggernaut with professional-level talent of its own and Aozasa on the sideline as a Cardinal assistant coach. She took over for Cromwell at UCLA in 2022 after Cromwell left the university for the head coaching position of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride and brought assistant coach Sam Greene with her. Cromwell’s tenure ended prematurely after an NWSL and NWSLPA joint investigation substantiated allegations of retaliation by her coaching staff (which Cromwell denies.)

Under Aozasa, UCLA immediately flourished. Senior Sunshine Fontes, a highly touted recruit who played limited minutes in 2021, emerged this season as the Bruins’ leading scorer and notched a key assist Monday night to get UCLA back in the game. And this time, when a UCLA team full of rising talent faced adversity in the biggest moment, the stars of tomorrow stepped up.

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Reilyn Turner scored in UCLA's semifinal and championship victories. (Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Junior Reilyn Turner, who trains with Angel City FC in the offseason and became Nike’s first-ever NIL signing last December, scored the equalizer to send UCLA into extra time. Reyes, a graduate student and Mexican national, bridges the gap between the Bruins’ underclassmen and those highly talented UCLA classes who couldn’t quite get the ball over the line. In a fitting ending, she scored the game-winner to officially close the chapter on that Bruins era and push the new one wide open.

“With this new staff, we’re just able to play freely,” Fontes told the Daily Bruin in October. “It’s taken a lot of work behind the scenes, but this new staff has kind of just come in and changed the whole dynamic of this team.”

In college soccer, star talent goes a long way, but sometimes collective belief goes just a little bit further. Down two goals with less than 15 minutes left in a championship game, UCLA didn’t always play the prettiest soccer, but by all means necessary, they finally lifted the program’s second championship trophy. For Aozasa, it wouldn’t be surprising if it’s the first of many.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

New Washington Spirit Head Coach Jonatan Giráldez Arrivin DC

head coach Jonatan Giráldez
Jonatan Giráldez joins the NWSL from FC Barcelona Femení. (Ramsey Cardy/UEFA via Getty Images)

Five months after announcing that the Washington Spirit had hired Barcelona Femení coach Jonatan Giráldez as the team's new head coach, Giráldez has joined the club in Washington, DC.

Giráldez is coming off of a successful season with the Spanish side, having won UEFA Women's Champions League, Copa de la Reina, Supercopa, and Liga F in his final season to complete a lauded Quadruple.

While Giráldez was finishing out his tenure in Europe, Adrián González filled in as Spirit interim head coach. González has also seen success, leading the team to its third-place standing with a 9-3-1 record through 13 games.

“I’m thrilled to join the Spirit and begin this next chapter with the club,” Giráldez said in an official team statement. “To be part of the vision Michele Kang has for the Spirit and women’s soccer globally is an exciting opportunity.”

Giráldez has worked at Barcelona since 2019, initially coming on as an assistant coach before moving up to head coach in 2021. The team went 30-0-0 on the season under Giráldez during his first year as manager.

He brings along with him Andrés González and Toni Gordo, who will serve as the Spirit's Fitness Coach and Club Analyst, respectively.

US Track & Field Olympic Trials Touch Down in Oregon

Sha’Carri Richardson competes in the women’s 200-meter preliminary round during the USATF Outdoor Championships
Sha’Carri Richardson will have some competition this week as athletes vie for an Olympic berth. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Track & Field Trials begin on June 21st, kicking off a 10-day quest to determine who will represent the US in Paris this summer.

The crucial meet will take place in Eugene, Oregon, where the top three finishers in each event will punch their ticket to the 2024 Olympics. As with this past week's US Swimming Trials, even the most decorated athletes must work to earn their spot — and one bad performance could undermine four years of preparation.

Reigning 100-meter World Champion Sha'Carri Richardson headlines this year's field, as the 24-year-old looks to qualify for her second Olympic Games and compete in her first. Richardson is a world champion in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprint, but missed the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for THC shortly after the last US Olympic Trials.

Other standouts include 400-meter Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, who's currently the most decorated athlete in the active women's US Track & Field pool. McLaughlin-Levrone qualified to run in the 200-meter and 400-meter flat races alongside the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but opted to focus solely on her signature event.

800-meter specialist Athing Mu will also be a huge draw this week, as the Olympic gold medalist looks to shake off a lingering hamstring injury while pursuing her second Summer Games. Gold medal-winning pole vaulter Katie Moon will also attempt to qualify for her second-straight Olympic Games.

Ole Miss star McKenzie Long could be Richardson's greatest competition in the 100-meter and 200-meter events, as well as Richardson's Worlds teammate Gabby Thomas in the 200-meter. In field events, watch for Oregon senior Jaida Ross going head-to-head with reigning world champion Chase Jackson in the shot put, as both push for their first Olympic team berth.

Regardless of why you tune in, the US Olympic Trials are a perpetually thrilling and sometimes brutal qualification process. If you're able to make your way to the head of the pack, a shot at Olympic glory might just be waiting at the finish line.

Fans can catch live coverage throughout the Trials via NBC, USA, and Peacock.

Top Teams Square Off in NWSL Weekend Slate

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda
Orlando Pride, led by forward Barbra Banda, will take on Utah in this weekend's NWSL action. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

As the NWSL season continues, a few top-performing clubs will have a chance to boost their standings this weekend.

First-place Kansas City will travel to Providence Park to take on fifth-place Portland, as the Current look to keep their unbeaten streak intact. And in New Jersey, third-place Washington will take on fourth-place Gotham FC, with both teams attempting to extend multi-game unbeaten streaks.

A six-point gap has opened between the fifth and sixth spot on the NWSL table — with just six points also separating the league's top five. Kansas City, Orlando, Washington, Gotham, and Portland have recently proven themselves to be a cut above the rest of the competition. With eight postseason spots up for grabs and half the season behind us, a pattern is forming that indicates the playoff race could come down to spots six through eight on the NWSL table.

Of those top five teams, only Orlando faces an opponent in the bottom half of the league this weekend: The Pride will take on 14th-place Utah, who nonetheless are coming off a win — just their second of the season — over Bay FC last weekend.

But despite Kansas City and Orlando having yet to lose a game, Gotham might be the squad coming into the weekend with the most momentum.

Clutch goals from Rose Lavelle and rookie Maycee Bell gave the Bats a 2-0 midweek win over San Diego on Wednesday, in a rematch of the 2024 Challenge Cup. Gotham's unbeaten streak dates all the way back to April, as rising availability and sharpened form have honed this year's superteam into a contender.

Bottom line? As the NWSL season passes the halfway mark, some matches might begin to feel more like playoff previews than mere regular season battles.

Chelsea Gray Returns From Injury in Aces Win Over Seattle

las vegas aces chelsea gray and kelsey plum celebrate a win over the seattle storm
Gray has been sidelined with a foot injury since the 2023 WNBA Finals. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Chelsea Gray made her return to the basketball court on Wednesday, helping the Aces to a 94-83 win over the Seattle Storm. 

The lauded point guard missed the first 12 games of the season, having been injured in last year’s WNBA Finals. The left foot injury caused her to miss Game 4 of the championship series, and she’s continued to rehab it through the beginning of the 2024 season. 

Her return on Wednesday was capitalized by the fact that she needed just 20 seconds to make an impact and record her first assist. While she finished with just one point, she had seven assists, four rebounds, and two blocks to go alongside it in 15:30 minutes. Gray's contributions on the night brought her career assist record up to 1,500.

"I probably went through every emotion leading up to today," Gray said after the game. "I was a little anxious all day. It's been a long time since I've been out on that court. But the fans were amazing from the time I came out to warm up to the time I checked in the game. It was a rush and a feeling I missed a lot."

It’s been a roller coaster of a season so far for Las Vegas, who have lost five of their last seven games. Gray, who averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.0 rebounds in 2023, has proven herself a much-needed addition to the team’s lineup.

"Felt like my heart," Aces coach Becky Hammon said when asked how she felt hearing the crowd erupt for Gray's return. "She's the leader of our team. I thought she did a wonderful job too."

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