You hear all the time about the trope of a proverbial unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.
But what happens when an immovable object meets an immovable object?
That’s a question that will be answered tonight in Los Angeles, as two titans of the women’s soccer world will clash at Drake Stadium in a matchup between No. 3 Stanford (10-0-2, 2-0-1 Pac-12) and No. 1 UCLA (10-0-2, 2-0-1). While both teams are among the final three undefeated teams in the country and have played suffocating defense through the start of the season, something has to give.
Last season, UCLA won both matchups between the two teams as the Bruins cruised to the national title. But with Stanford having seemed to bounce back from the uncharacteristic downturn of last season, the Cardinal have all of the pieces to mount an upset of the defending champions in Westwood. It’s just a matter of putting those pieces together.
“Yeah, I think we’re a year ahead of where we were last year,” said head coach Paul Ratcliffe. “The team’s improved. There’s better leadership in the group, and I think everyone just seems more polished, so we’re excited to go down there and have a good test against UCLA.”
The last piece to the puzzle is making sure that the offense is able to take advantage of penetration into the opposing box and not come away from those chances empty-handed.
On some days, such as the days when sophomore forward Ryan Walker-Hartshorn notched her twin hat tricks, the attacks as a whole are crisp and opportunistic, exploiting not only the physical talent of the Cardinal players but also lapses in opposing defenses. But on other days, against solid back lines like the one that Washington State brought to the Farm last weekend, Stanford had many attacks and shots but not many good looks, leading to a deceptively close 1-0 score despite the Cardinal’s domination of the match.
Congratulations to Ryan Walker-Hartshorn, the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week!
— Stanford Soccer (@StanfordWSoccer) October 6, 2014
And it’s going to get much tougher to get good looks against a Bruins defense that is one of the few in the country that can rival Stanford’s defense. While Stanford leads the nation with just two goals allowed all season, UCLA is right on the Cardinal’s heels with just three allowed.
The Bruins’ swarming back line has allowed only 28 shots on goal all season through 12 matches, and the shots that have gone through have been ably saved by goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland, who has already re-set the school record for consecutive shutout minutes with her performance this season.
“I think it’s just business as usual for us,” Ratcliffe said. “Obviously they limit the amount of opportunities you’re going to get, so when we do get opportunities, we’ve got to be sharp in front of goal. That’s why we’ve been working on our finishing technique. So if we do get good chances, we’re going to put them away.”
While Walker-Hartshorn has taken advantage of her increased opportunities this season to the tune of a team-leading eight goals for Stanford, UCLA’s attack is paced by a time-tested and proven commodity in attacking midfielder Sam Mewis, who has already scored nine goals this season to add to the 15 that she has put up over the last three seasons. Six of those nine goals on Mewis’ part have been of the game-winning variety. In a match that is expected to be hotly contested and low-scoring, Mewis’ penchant for opportunistic scores may be enough to push the Bruins over the edge.
But on the other side of the field, Stanford forward Chioma Ubogagu has been no less resourceful, having scored three of her four goals this season in 1-0 Cardinal victories. Ubogagu also has a history of playing UCLA well, having notched three dramatic goals and an assist against the Bruins throughout her career.
Tonight’s match figures to be one decided by the play of the midfield, with UCLA’s defensive game plan having revolved around using its stellar talent to mark opponents close and prevent the ball from even sniffing the box — UCLA has out-shot its opponents 225-56 this season and has only conceded 16 corners and no penalty kicks — which will mean that the Cardinal can’t rely on set pieces and will instead have to control and pass the ball with pinpoint accuracy and take any attack opportunities it can create with its ball movement.
During this short week of practice, Stanford has just been focused on making sure that everybody is fresh and able to carry through the momentum from this last weekend, in which the Cardinal easily knocked out both Washington schools at home. If Stanford can make the tweaks on carrying out disciplined attacks all the way through, as it did late against Washington State, it should be confident in its ability to leave UCLA with at least a draw in tow.
“You make little tactical adjustments for each game you come up against, but for the most part we’re worried about us and how we can play better and how we can improve,” Ratcliffe said. “So a lot of the adjustments are from the past weekend. We saw what we could keep improving on and we kind of mended that this week.
“Obviously we enjoy tests. We want this challenge. We want this test.”
Stanford will battle UCLA for supremacy in the Pac-12 and aim to snap the Bruins’ 33-game unbeaten streak at 8 p.m. tonight in Los Angeles. The match will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.