Sophia Smith found herself on the ball one-on-one on the right side of the box for the third time on Friday night in Avaya Stadium. The sophomore forward then bypassed Karina Rodriguez, drove into the box and buried a goal. This one found side-netting.
With junior midfielder Catarina Macario held off the score sheet for just the fourth time all season and first since the last matchup between Stanford and UCLA, the Cardinal needed someone else to step up. And Smith delivered.
Smith’s second hat trick of the postseason propelled No. 1 overall seed Stanford (23-1, 11-0 Pac-12) past seventh-seeded UCLA (18-5-1, 8-3 Pac-12) 4-1 and into the College Cup final. The North Carolina Tar Heels (24-1-1, 9-0-1 ACC), winners of 21 national championships, await the Cardinal on Sunday.
Though Stanford has won the past seven against UCLA, the five prior to the semifinal were decided by just one goal. The Bruins suffered a 1-0 loss on the Farm on Oct. 19, but they followed it up with a nine-game win streak that was snapped by the Cardinal on Friday night.
The Bruins’ Chloe Castañeda opened scoring in the seventh minute, beating redshirt freshman goalkeeper Katie Meyer from distance.
“I was ecstatic, and I thought we really set the tone for the rest of the game,” Castañeda said. “It was rough after that.”
As a team, the Cardinal huddled and regrouped after finding themselves down for the first time since a 3-2 comeback win against USC on Sept. 28. As part of that gathering, Smith and senior forward Carly Malatskey flopped sides, putting Smith on the right where she would score all three of her goals.
Just two minutes later, the tactical maneuver paid off for the Cardinal. On a solo run, Smith worked down the right flank then saw the ball between the legs of UCLA and Australia national team keeper Teagan Micah.
“Conceding a goal was maybe a wakeup call for us, but I think we responded very well,” Smith said. “[The hat-trick] means a lot to me, but I know it means even more to my team.”
Smith’s scoring spree was momentarily interrupted by a goal from Malatskey, but Smith quickly regained her stride in the 31st minute.
Not far past midfield, junior forward Madison Haley turned and found a streaking Smith in an area of open space. From there, the talented forward had no problem eating up ground, cutting against the grain to put Rodriguez on her back foot and finishing with her left foot. For Haley, the assist was the first of two to push her season total to 14.
Entering the season, Stanford’s single-season assist record of 16 was shared by Christen Press ’11 and Macario, but Macario’s 23-assist campaign has left Haley out of the chase.
“I’m going to play what I see,” Haley said. “In that moment I realized I could turn. I saw Sophia sprinting from behind. A big part of our game is trying to isolate our wing forwards. We have two special wing forwards up here that can take people 1v1 and create those chances and finish them.”
With under three minutes to play before halftime and Stanford clinging to a two-goal advantage, freshman left back Kennedy Wesley was whistled for a penalty in the box after a clattering tackle. UCLA’s leading goal scorer, the freshman Mia Fishel, was denied by Meyer at the lower right corner.
“It sucks to miss a PK, and we had plenty of other opportunities to close the gap, so it’s not just all on that PK,” McCullough said. “It definitely is a little bit of a morale defeater, but I think we still responded well after that.”
Following the penalty kick save, an animated Meyer was simultaneously congratulated and pulled back by her teammates after standing over Fishel.
“Katie Meyer was obviously disappointed in the first goal and how she conceded that, so she had something to prove,” said Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe. “She’s a great competitor and made a massive save on that PK.”
Outside of the penalty kick save, Meyer added three more saves to double her career-best. Although Stanford held its opponent under 10 shots for the 17th consecutive game, Meyer faced five shots on goal.
Smith bagged her third goal of the game six minutes into the second half on an unusual run off the back line from senior center back Sam Hiatt. More often it is fellow captain and center back sophomore Naomi Girma who breaches the midfield, but Hiatt led a counterattack, found Smith as an outlet and the crafty sophomore would not be deterred.
The remainder of the game was seen out by Stanford in possession. Ratcliffe was able to enter seven players off the bench into the match.
“We wished we had a better effort overall, just for the game of soccer in general,” said UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell. “Tonight was an off game for us. It didn’t reflect our season.”
“You gotta show up every time you play them [Stanford], and, obviously, we didn’t tonight,” said center back Kaiya McCullough. “They’re the standard right now.”
Despite the hat trick from Smith, the game-winning goal came off the boot of senior forward Carly Malatskey in the 21st minute. Haley slid Malatskey into the box, who took a first-time effort that was touched but not saved by Micah, deflecting off the post and into the goal.
Since the start of the playoffs, Malatskey, like the other seniors, has been confronted with the possibility of each game being her last in the Stanford uniform. After netting nine regular season goals, Malatskey had been held to one assist in three playoff games — she did not feature in the first round matchup.
“This whole time I was just hungry to score,” Malatskey said. “Once Madison [Haley] turned, I was just making that run hoping to create space for her. Once she played it in, I was like, ‘OK, I know I have to hit this first time.’ It was an incredible feeling to put my team up and get that energy up to keep going.”
“I look at her [Malatskey] as an inspirational leader for this team,” Ratcliffe said. “We want to send her off as a champion. That’s a goal of this team to send our senior class off with a championship.”
Stanford and North Carolina will meet in Avaya Stadium Sunday at 5:30 p.m. PT. In 2009, the Cardinal bypassed the Bruins in the first round only to run into the Tar Heels in the final and suffer a 1-0 defeat as Kelley O’Hara ’10 was sent off.
Since then, the two schools have met just twice, with Stanford picking up its first two victories in the series. Last season, in Cagan Stadium, Smith scored in regulation before Haley came through with an overtime winner. Entering Sunday’s final, Stanford will have 102 goals on the season and an 18-game win streak. While the Cardinal have conceded 12 times, North Carolina has allowed just 11 goals this season.
Contact Daniel Martinez-Krams at danielmk ‘at’ stanford.edu.