Saturday, April 1 2023

Another soccer match felt like the last place Margueritte Aozasa wanted to be. Yet one day after UCLA lost a chance at its third consecutive Pac-12 title with a 2-0 defeat to rival USC, the Bruin head coach was at Banc of California Stadium for LAFC’s MLS Cup win over Philadelphia. The wild 3-3 draw and penalty kicks proved to be an ideal remedy for rivalry blues.

Seeing the tear-stained cheeks of LAFC supporters and employees reminded Aozasa of the emotions of helping Stanford to two national championships as an assistant. Suddenly, Aozasa was ready to get back on the pitch.

“It was kind of the perfect precursor to our own playoff run,” she said.

Like the Supporters’ Shield-winning MLS Cup champions, the Bruins hope to turn a successful regular season into a championship. The team that was ranked first in the country for nine weeks and earned a No. 1 seed despite its regular-season finale loss opens the NCAA tournament against Northern Arizona at 6 p.m. PST on Friday at Wallis Annenberg Stadium.

No. 4 seed USC hosts Big West champions UC Irvine at 1 p.m. Saturday at McAlister Field.

Aozasa, who was named Pac-12 coach of the year Tuesday, elevated the Bruins (17-2) into one of the conference’s elite defensive teams, allowing just nine goals behind Pac-12 defender of the year Lilly Reale and goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy. The nine goals are the fewest for the Bruins since 2013 when they won their only national championship. On offense, the two-time defending Pac-12 champions scored a conference-leading 53 goals, compared with 40 last season.

But even with her team completing a historic regular season, Aozasa remains haunted by ghosts of set pieces (six of the nine goals UCLA allowed were off those). Entering an unpredictable postseason, the Bruins realize the importance of capitalizing on even the fleeting moment of a free kick.

“Set pieces are a great equalizer,” said Aozasa, who noted all six goals in the MLS Cup were scored off set pieces or throw-ins. “You can be outplaying [a team], but if they, in that one moment, are better, then it can change the whole game and that’s the mentality that we need to take. … We need to be just as good [on set pieces] as we are in the run of play.”

Both of USC’s goals against the Bruins on Nov. 4 came outside the run of play. The Trojans jumped ahead on a corner kick in the 15th minute then doubled down with a penalty kick from midfielder Zoe Burns 14 minutes later.

The Trojans (12-2-3) celebrated their first rivalry win since 2015 by mobbing goalie Anna Smith after the fifth-year senior recorded five saves. USC players flashed the school’s ubiquitous victory symbol. Some turned UCLA’s “fours up” sign upside down.

But when the postseason draw was announced Monday, the Trojans quickly left the emotional win behind.

“We know that we won a game the other day, but we still have to win something big, bigger than one game or a handful of games,” USC head coach Jane Alukonis said. “So all eyes set on the natty.”

The Trojans carry a three-game winning streak into the postseason despite key absences in the midfield. USC star Croix Bethune and fellow All-Pac-12 first team honoree Simi Awujo missed the final two games of the regular season after suffering injuries in USC’s 2-1 win against Washington on Oct. 27.

Awujo, a Canadian national team member, could return as soon as this weekend, Alukonis said, but Bethune, the two-time Pac-12 midfielder of the year who leads the Trojans in goals and assists, is out indefinitely.

Bethune was carried off by teammates after colliding with the Washington goalkeeper while scoring the game-winning goal. Seeing their team captain, who has already overcome two torn ACLs, leave the same game as another key midfielder was an emotional test for the Trojans.

“Those moments made us come together and re-adjust and made us stronger,” Smith said.

USC enters the postseason with a 3-2 win over Irvine on Sept. 15 when the Trojans scored three times in the first 24 minutes.

The Anteaters (10-5-6) had high hopes for the season after several key players from last year’s Big West title team returned, including 2021 Big West goalkeeper of the year Glo Hinojosa and Maddy Chavez, last season’s Big West co-defensive player of the year. Irvine was picked to finish first in the conference during the preseason.

But the Anteaters tied five of their first six conference games and entered the final week of the regular season needing a win to secure the last spot in the Big West Tournament. They gave up a goal to Hawaii in the fifth minute.

“We knew what the ingredients were, but once it was win or go home, the players were like, ‘Right, we gotta go for it here,’ ” Irvine coach Scott Juniper said. “And it was suddenly a different team and a different energy.”

Irvine stormed back for a 4-1 win against Hawaii and hasn’t conceded a goal in 385 minutes after three shutouts in the Big West Tournament.

The Anteaters are 2-0-1 in NCAA first-round matchups under Juniper, including a monumental upset of second-seeded UCLA last year when the Bruins were undefeated entering the postseason. The favored Bruins were riding an emotional high after a rivalry win against USC on the final day of the regular season. Like USC this year, the Bruins had also beaten Irvine in the regular season after jumping out to a three-goal lead early before the Anteaters attempted to mount a comeback.

When Juniper pointed out the similarities between the two situations this week, his team perked up.

“We’ve got them right where we want them,” Juniper said half-jokingly.

When the memory of the loss flashed in Brzykcy’s mind this week, the sixth-year senior couldn’t help but laugh. It felt like a mask for her pain.

“It still stings,” she said.

Bryzkcy admits the Bruins didn’t enter the match with the proper mindset, allowing the Big West champions to score early. Now with every match possibly being her last in a Bruin uniform, the goalkeeper won’t let the same mistake happen against Northern Arizona.

“We have to focus on ourselves and how we can play our game,” Brzykcy said, “because when we play our game, no one can stop us.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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