Arizona soccer was competitive but came up short in their first big test of the season, falling 2-1 to No. 4 UCLA in their Pac-12 opener.
The Wildcats made a push in the final five minutes with a corner kick by Jordan Hall, a free kick by Sabrina Enciso that bounced around the box, and a promising run by Jada Talley that ended with a shot wide of the far post.
Arizona drops to 4-1 on the season heading into a homestand against the Washington schools.
“It was a hard fought game,” head coach Tony Amato said. “We played one of the best programs in the country and we lost 2-1 in a time when it’s Pac-12 play and a totally different game than it was the first four that we played. I think we saw a lot of good things and a lot of things we have to clean up.”
It was a rough start for Arizona’s young backline, which gave up two first-half goals. UCLA senior midfielder Delanie Sheehan dribbled through several defenders, briefly had the ball knocked away, and collected it well within the 18-yard box for an easy finish to give the Bruins the lead in the 19th minute.
UCLA benefitted from another defensive breakdown in the 27th minute when UA defenders Ava McCray and Ava Hetzel failed to clear a cross that plopped between them. The ball bounced away and Mia Fishel, who wasn’t really that close to the initial ball, pounced on it and buried a point-blank shot.
“That was just miscommunication of an ‘I go, you go’ type of thing,” said Enciso, the lone returning starter on the backline. “That’s an easy fix, but obviously we can’t make mistakes like that.”
To Arizona’s credit, they battled back. Less than two minutes after Sheehan’s goal, Madison Goerlinger and Jill Aguilera combined to make it 1-1. Goerlinger won a second ball and slotted a shot inside the far post after beautifully executing a give-and-go with Aguilera.
Goerlinger hopped up and down after seeing the ball grace the net, her first goal of the season.
“It was super exciting, especially against UCLA, one of the top ranked teams in the country,” she said. “And we were down a goal. ... We really never stopped fighting.”
Arizona tightened things up in the second half, holding UCLA to four shots after they had 13 in the first half. Hetzel, a freshman, atoned for her early error by blocking a long shot along the goal line in the 85th minute, keeping the Wildcats within striking distance in the late goings.
Enciso, a SoCal native who finds an extra gear against the Bruins, said UCLA’s quickness, passing accuracy and composure on the ball was unlike anything Arizona saw in non-conference play. The Bruins finished with a 17-9 shot differential.
“At halftime, we talked about making sure we step with their forwards, make sure we make it tough on them, make sure we pick up runners in the box, and I thought in the second half we did a better job,” Amato said.
Sophomore goalkeeper Hope Hisey was a big part of that. She mostly went untested in the non-conference season, but stepped up against UCLA by sending away several corners and making seven saves, the third-most of her career.
“Off the line, in the air, she had such great saves,” Goerlinger said.
Hisey was noticeably more vocal than she was as a freshman, whether that was barking tactical advice or simple words of encouragement to her teammates. Before Hall took a corner kick in the 87th minute, Hisey yelled “give everything we’ve got right here!” from across the pitch.
The Bruins were able to clear it anyway.
“I’m not happy that we lost, but I am happy with the effort we put forward,” Hisey said. “I was curious on how we would respond to a goal down and we scored really quickly after that, and then we shut them out for an entire half and battled with them and got really close to tying it up. And I think as a first Pac game, a first game that really challenged us, against the top team in the country, I am honestly happy with where we are and how we can move forward this season.”
The Wildcats hope to be healthier, too. They were without senior forward Hannah Clifford (hamstring) and barely had Aguilera in the second half.
The star forward has been dealing with leg tightness for a few weeks now. She played 40 minutes in the first half, but only 13 in the second half. She started the period, exited in the 56th minute and re-entered in the final minutes as the Wildcats pushed for another equalizer.
“She’s so dangerous that you just hope a chance comes to her and she can finish it off and credit to her for gutting through it,” Amato said. “And I think for a while it’s going to be ‘treatment and get out there and do what you can.”’
With Clifford and Aguilera out/limited, the Wildcats leaned heavily on their freshmen. Eight of the 16 players who saw the field Friday were newcomers. Oftentimes that meant Arizona had seven freshmen on the pitch at the same time, with McCray, Enciso, Hisey and midfielder Iliana Hocking being the lone exceptions.
How did they fare in their first conference game?
“It’s one of those things that you cannot simulate what that’s going to be and how they’re going to react to it, and I thought they did a good job and it’s something that they need to build off of in the week ahead,” Amato said. “They’re being thrown to the fire and they’re responding well.”
Amato’s wife, Aguilera’s mother among family members in attendance
For the first time this season, players and coaches were allowed to bring up to four family members to Mulcahy Stadium. Friday, that meant there were about 50 folks in the stands supporting both sides, still a fraction of a normal crowd.
“It’s still really different,” Amato said. “It was great to have some more people here. You guys (the media) haven’t been very loud the last few games, so it’s definitely better. But usually it’s so loud that they (the fans) drown out my wife (Samantha). And tonight I heard her a few times trying to cheer us on. So hopefully we’ll continue to move forward with that and add more people as it goes on.”
Friday was actually the third home game Aguilera’s mother Julie Eshelman has seen in person. Sort of. For the first two, she pulled up a chair on 15th Street and watched the action through the wrought-iron gates of the north side of the stadium.
Being on the other side is much better.
“Oh, it’s awesome being here because it’s the whole environment, a whole vibe,” Julie said Friday. “Trying to watch it from underneath the fence, I could see, but anything down at the far end (of the field), I couldn’t see.”
Julie said Jill called her Monday to inform her that she could actually be inside the stadium for Friday’s game. Her reaction was as you’d expect.
“I said, ‘hell yeah, it’s about time!’” Julie laughed.
Julie commutes to games from San Diego and stays in Jill’s two-bedroom apartment when she visits. Julie gets the guest room and Jill’s brother, Jorge, gets the couch.
They aren’t willing to miss Jill’s senior season.
“It’s the last time I’m going to see her in Arizona uniform, so it’s very exciting, it’s bittersweet,” Julie said. “She loves playing Arizona soccer. Loves playing for Tony. Loves these girls. Loves the school, the academics. This was a great fit for her.”
Highlights and postgame interviews
20' - Goerlinger and Aguilera respond quickly to tie it up!— Arizona Soccer (@ArizonaSoccer) February 27, 2021
Arizona 1, UCLA 1 pic.twitter.com/UqGA9vbZEW