For the second time this season, two of the top three players in college soccer will take the same field. The first was on the pitch at a sold-out Cagan Stadium — the second is just 17 miles south in Avaya Stadium. This time, a spot in the College Cup final will be up for grabs.
On Thursday, the Cardinal’s Catarina Macario and the Bruins’ Jessie Fleming were both named as finalists for the Hermann Trophy award — which Macario won last year — a day before their two teams are set to square off in the College Cup semifinal.
No. 1 overall seed Stanford (22-1, 11-0 Pac-12) will seek to claim a second win over seventh-seeded UCLA (18-4-1, 8-3 Pac-12) tonight. In the first matchup, both Macario and Fleming were held off the scoresheet, but Stanford’s freshman midfielder Maya Doms headed home the game-winner.
“The takeaway for me from that game is that both Catarina and Jessie are outstanding players, and to see them battle against each other was really phenomenal and entertaining,” said Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe. “They’re two of the best midfielders in the whole country.”
Fleming, representing Canada in her second World Cup, scored and was named Player of the Match against New Zealand. The São Luís-born, Macario has been forced to watch the U.S. women’s national team from the wings, including the recent announcement of four teammates receiving an invitation to camp. Resigned to the collegiate stage, Macario has led the nation and set new program records in goals (32), assists (23) and points (87).
Stanford has won the last six matches between the two schools, and the last five have been decided by just one goal. That streak includes the 2017 national championship game, which was the Cardinal won 3-2 on a strike from Jaye Boissiere ’17.
“They’re a great opponent and I think every time we play them it’s a close game,” said senior center back Sam Hiatt. “We’re definitely going to take what we learned after playing them in Pac-12s and just try and get better. I think we have become a better team since then.”
The Bruins struggled out of the gates in Pac-12 play, dropping to Cal and Arizona to open 0-2 in the conference. UCLA outscored its next three opponents 9-1, then ran into a brick wall — the Stanford defense that did not allow a goal in the month of October.
After its loss on the Farm, UCLA is on a nine-game winning streak, most recently bypassing defending champion Florida State. The Seminoles ended Stanford’s hopes of a title defense in 2018 in the semifinals.
“We weren’t great in the attacking third with some of our entry passes,” said UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell of her team’s performance against the Cardinal. “We were dangerous enough, but we just needed to get some shots off that we didn’t get off.”
“Those are things now, if you’ve been watching us, we’ve been pretty on fire with,” Cromwell said.
In the postseason, UCLA has shut out its past three opponents after conceding a goal to Lamar University in the final minute of a 4-1 first-round win.
“We have improved immensely as a team and we are a lot tighter,” said center back Kaiya McCullough. “Across the field our defense has become a lot tighter from the forward line all the way down to our goalkeeper.”
“We took some heavy losses that kind of woke us up during Pac-12 (games) that helped push us to where we are now,” McCullough added.
In the first 11 games, UCLA allowed 11 goals. In the last 10 games, that number has fallen to five.
“Our team has improved immensely from that game,” said UCLA’s goalkeeper Teagan Micah. “We’re a different team, especially at defense.”
“We’re peaking at the right time and playing some fantastic soccer,” Cromwell said.
Since an early-season loss to Pepperdine, a tournament team that tied the Bruins, Stanford forged ahead with a 17-game winning streak, during which the team has outscored opponents 72-7.
Last year, Stanford flew across the country to attend the College Cup. This year, Stanford will play in the hometown of Pac-12 Defender of the Year sophomore Naomi Girma. Along with co-captain and fellow center back senior Sam Hiatt, the pair have conducted a defense that has allowed 11 goals all season. In the postseason, Stanford has allowed just 13 shots, and only four have been put on frame.
“Even though it’s at home, the most important thing is the College Cup and we’re not really focused on being super close,” Girma said. “It’s really cool that we have our family and friends coming out to support.”
Macario and junior forward Madison Haley, who have combined for 43 of Stanford’s nation-leading 98 goals, were named Academic All-Americans, Macario to the second team and Haley to the third. The twin strikers are the only College Cup participants to earn Academic All-America status.
Washington State (16-6-1, 5-5-1 Pac-12) and North Carolina (23-1-1, 9-0-1 ACC) wait on the other side of the bracket. For only the second time, three teams from one conference reached the season’s final weekend.
“We’ve been tested against some really difficult opponents,” Ratcliffe said. “Hopefully that’s prepared us for this opportunity, but the College Cup — it’s a whole new game.”
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.