UCLA defense could be key to Bruins' long-awaited NCAA title
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Remakes are nothing new in Hollywood, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that UCLA has stayed so faithful to a successful script over the past few years.
Champions of the Pac-10 for the sixth season in a row, the No. 2 Bruins are yet again loaded with world-class offensive talent -- literally in the case of Olympians Lauren Cheney (who represented the United States) and Kara Lang (who represented Canada) -- and remain decided favorites to reach the College Cup for the sixth straight season. A program that has dominated the conference to the tune of a 119-26 scoring margin since the 2003 season, UCLA even duplicated its now familiar late hiccup, going into overtime in Friday's 2-1 win at Oregon State -- the fifth time in six years the Bruins needed extra time during the final weekend of the regular season.
Oregon State's goal on a well-struck free kick from Courtney Wetzel marked just the fourth time this season a team found the back of the net against the Bruins. That's one goal every five games, a goals-against average (.193) that ranks first in the nation by a comfortable margin (Portland is second at .276). Although known more for their offense over the years, the Bruins have been good on defense before; the 2000 team that lost to North Carolina in the title game allowed 10 goals in 24 games.
But, at least statistically, they've never been this good.
"If you give up less than 12 goals a year, that's a pretty good statistic, especially with some of the teams we're playing and the RPI they have," UCLA coach Jillian Ellis said. "But I'll credit [assistant coach] B.J. Snow; Brian Snow has worked extremely hard with the back line. They've come through him; this is their third year with him. And we've probably made more of an investment on defending because of him being here."
Defending is a team effort. Lang's size and athleticism make her a valuable asset when she comes back into the defensive half, and midfielder McCall Zerboni can make herself a pest in the best sense of the word. And nothing makes a defender's life easier than watching her counterparts scramble to deal with Cheney at the other end of the field. But at the same time, it's the back line of Erin Hardy, Dea Cook, Lauren Barnes and Lauren Wilmoth, along with goalkeeper Ashley Thompson, who have the final say in whether the team bends or breaks.
Playing together for a second season, the four defenders are powered by continuity as much as innovation. Defending is about discipline and execution, and Snow's message isn't anything that needs translation.
The difference comes in doing those things 100 percent of the time. Midway through the first half of Friday's game, Wilmoth slipped on a wet field as an Oregon State player pushed the ball up the left sideline. In half a beat, Hardy seamlessly slid outside to screen the opponent as the ball rolled harmlessly over the end line for a goal kick. Plays like that happen dozens of times a game, but the instant reaction and cohesion was the difference between a goal kick for the Bruins and a dangerous cross into the open space created by Wilmoth's slip and Hardy's move outside. Multiply that play by 90 minutes and 20 games and you get numbers such as 16 shutouts.
What has shocked many observers is how seamlessly UCLA transitioned out of the Val Henderson era. Exiting last season, it wasn't at all clear who would take over for Henderson, a four-year starter in goal for the Bruins. Redshirt freshman Marissa Campbell and highly touted true freshman Yiana Dimmitt were options, but senior Ashley Thompson seized the starting job and never let go. After starting only four games in her first three seasons -- all while Henderson was away at the 2006 Under-20 World Cup -- Thompson now leads the nation in goals-against average and save percentage.
"We think it's awesome," Hardy said of the team's surprise star. "I'm just so happy for her. This is her fifth year [she redshirted in 2004], and every year at practice she's been behind Val and not being able to show what she's showing now."
Despite losing standout freshman forward Sydney Leroux to the Under-20 World Cup, UCLA's offense -- with talents such as Cheney, Lang and midfielder Christina DiMartino -- will hold the spotlight as the team embarks on another NCAA tournament run. But with the security of a lock-down defense in reserve, perhaps the Bruins can play the game that has thus far eluded them on the college game's biggest stage.
"We just have to execute; that's what our problem is," Hardy said. "We know what to do, we know how to play, but it's just we've got to do it. We get to the Final Four, or we get to a game and we know what we should do, and we just don't do it."
That's a lesson learned the hard way, but learned nonetheless. And so perhaps like the best cinematic redux, these suddenly stingy Bruins will make their familiar script come alive in an entirely new way.
"People have talked a lot about the last years, in the sense of not having won a championship," Ellis said. "And my answer to that has always been: Every year is different, and our focus and energy is on this year. But I certainly think the experience is invaluable, knowing what it takes.
"We don't look back, but we take what we've learned forward."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.