UCLA, USC soccer teams endure one more delay before starting again
There wasn’t much in women’s soccer she hadn’t seen or experienced — until last year, when a once-in-a-century pandemic canceled classes, practices and finally the season. So when Cromwell got word in a Zoom call that her team could return to campus for training and a shortened 15-game season this winter, she cried.
“I turned off my video because I had to wipe a tear away I was so overwhelmed with emotion,” she said. “I just wanted to be coaching again. I missed the team. I missed my staff and being on the field.”
Then she missed the opening game when Thursday’s home match with San Diego was scratched “due to minimum player standards not being met” by the Toreros. After waiting more than five months for the kickoff of their 2020 season, which was pushed into 2021, Cromwell and her players have to wait until Sunday, when they travel to Pepperdine for what is now their first game.
This being the season of COVID-19, nothing is certain until it happens. Pepperdine’s scheduled opener also didn’t take place, with Thursday’s game at USC canceled when the Waves were unable to field a team. USC will try again with visiting Brigham Young on Feb. 15; the UCLA men will begin their delayed season against San Francisco on Monday.
The UCLA men’s scheduled opener with Westmont also was postponed by the coronavirus.
“It’s like purgatory,” Viviana Villacorta, a senior midfielder on UCLA’s women’s team, said of the repeated delays. “Just very tough mentally.”
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The UCLA women haven’t played since losing to Stanford in the 2019 NCAA semifinals 14 months ago; USC’s break was a week longer. No player at either school has gone that long without a game since they started playing soccer competitively.
The break has been so long, in fact, that five players from the two teams were selected in last month’s NWSL draft. One of them, USC goalkeeper Kaylie Collins, said the time away from soccer has rekindled her passion for the game.
“College sports, in general, it is so go, go, go for an athlete whose identity is so rooted in being an athlete. COVID gave people a chance to step back and really look at themselves in a bigger picture,” said Collins, who will join the Orlando Pride when USC’s season ends.
“The pandemic was an opportunity to back out. It gave a lot of players the choice to be like, ‘No, this is what I want to be doing. This is how I want to be spending my time.’ ... You have so much more gratitude for that piece of you now.”
College soccer, for men and women, is a fall sport, with teams training in the spring and playing a four-month season from late August through early December. The coronavirus upended all that last year, canceling spring practices and keeping players off campus until August.
A month later, the NCAA announced that it was pushing fall sports into early 2021, with abbreviated regular-season schedules that won’t count against a player’s eligibility, allowing seniors to come back and compete again in the fall.
For USC forward Tara McKeown, who has already earned her degree and was a first-round pick of the Washington Spirit, the temptation wasn’t so much coming back but leaving early to start a professional career she has long dreamed of.
NWSL teams are already in training camp, and staying in college will force McKeown to miss the Challenge Cup tournament in April and perhaps the start of the regular season in May.
“I thought about that,” McKeown said. “But this is like my family and I wouldn’t want to move on without being able to play with my best friends and these amazing coaches for one more season.”
Villacorta, a first-round pick of the Orlando Pride, and teammates Lucy Parker (Kansas City) and Delanie Sheehan (Sky Blue FC), also decided to delay their pro careers for a chance at finishing their college ones on the field and not in quarantine.
MLS will open its season in April instead of its traditional March date because of coronavirus concerns, although CBA negotiations must be finalized.
“I talked to my teammates about it and we all had this mind-set of our senior season was taken away from us in the fall. We’re definitely going to stay and play our last season … because the way it ended, it was just very abrupt,” Villacorta said. “We are still kind of holding on to that, wanting to have our last hurrah, our last go at it.”
But Cromwell, who expects to tear up again on Sunday, said the thrill of simply getting back on the field will quickly give way to a bigger, more common goal: winning.
“We’re going to have that initial ‘this is victory, this one game is all I needed,’” she said. “But then that’s going to be ‘OK, that’s all I needed today.’ Then we’re going to have the next game and that’s going to feed our competitive fire.
“Then we’re going to be not just satisfied with playing, we’re going to be wanting to win something.”
Only then will soccer feel normal again.
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