Jessie Fleming’s talent and leadership help fuel UCLA’s title aspirations
Jessie Fleming has yet to find a sport she can’t dominate.
Since she grew up in Canada, she started with hockey, starring in a full-contact boys’ league until seventh grade, when she quit to follow her parents into distance running. There she was undefeated in cross-country, won three high school championships on the track and set a provincial record in the 1,500 meters in between games with the national soccer team.
If Fleming was awake, chances are she was beating somebody at something.
It was exhausting.
“There was a point where my parents said we gotta pick one and kind of roll with it,” Fleming remembered this week.
So she picked soccer, with her international debut at age 15 marking the first step on a path that has taken the midfielder to two World Cups, an Olympic medal stand and through four all-conference seasons at UCLA.
“I don’t know if there would have been a wrong choice,” Fleming said, sitting in the last row of a tiny auditorium on the UCLA campus. “I’ve really enjoyed my four years here and I think I’ve grown a lot as a person and a student and a player.
“So I definitely don’t regret what I’ve done.”
Nor does Bruins coach Amanda Cromwell, who made Fleming, the second-youngest woman to play for Canada’s senior national team, the jewel of her first recruiting class. That confidence has been rewarded with two trips to the NCAA College Cup — soccer’s final four — the second of which begins Friday at what is forecast to be a cold and wet Avaya Stadium in San Jose.
Chloe Castaneda and Mia Fishel each had two goals as UCLA beat Florida State 4-0 to reach the College Cup, while USC fell 3-2 to North Carolina.
Seventh-ranked UCLA (18-4-1) will meet No. 1 Stanford (22-1-0) in its semifinal with unranked Washington State (16-6-1) facing No. 2 North Carolina (23-1-1) in the other game.
“She’s definitely one of the best midfielders I’ve ever coached,” Cromwell said of Fleming, a two-time finalist for the Hermann Trophy, soccer’s version of the Heisman. That’s high praise since Cromwell coached Sam Mewis, who had two goals and three assists for the U.S. in last summer’s Women’s World Cup.
“She sees the game differently,” Cromwell continued. “Her tactical awareness and her movement off the ball; if you’re not really keen to soccer you might miss a lot of things she does.”
Like sacrificing her own performance for the team. Fleming’s three goals and four assists this season are both career lows but that’s because injuries have forced her to play farther upfield as a defensive midfielder, a blue-collar job as important — and unsung — as playing offensive line in the NFL.
“This may be one of her best years as a leader,” said Cromwell, who was a holding midfielder in her playing days with the U.S. national team. “[She] is helping us defensively, protecting the goal, getting shutouts, being a ball-winner.
“It’s not about her. It’s never about her. It’s always been about the team.”
And that team heads into the College Cup riding a wave of momentum, having won nine in a row and 12 of its last 13. But that one loss came against Stanford, the nation’s top-ranked and top-scoring team behind junior Catarina Macario, the reigning Hermann Trophy winner and the heavy favorite to keep the award this season.
Macario, who leads the nation in goals (32) and assists (23), didn’t score in her last meeting with UCLA, one of two Pac-12 teams to shut the Brazilian out this season. Fleming is looking forward to the rematch.
“They bring out the best in us,” she said of Stanford. “I’ve really enjoyed watching Cat play and I love a good challenge and having the opportunity to play against someone like her .
“We’re just excited.”
Fleming, 21, has some unfinished business with Stanford, a team she has never beaten and one UCLA hasn’t vanquished in more than five years. Some of those losses have been painful ones.
In her only trip to an NCAA championship game, Fleming’s second-half penalty kick helped UCLA rally from a two-goal deficit to tie Stanford in a game the Cardinal would eventually win.
Ten Bruins who played in that 2017 game are still on the roster; five of them, including Fleming, are seniors who will see their college careers end with another loss to Stanford.
“To be honest, it’s something I was maybe putting more pressure on at the start of the tournament. Just that thought creeping into the back of your mind like ‘Oh, this could be my last college game,’ ” said Fleming, who saw her first three seasons at UCLA all end in playoffs losses.
Fleming is all about having no regrets though. And this weekend isn’t going to change that.
“We’re just excited and we’re just taking it one game at a time,” she said. “We’ll do everything we can on Friday night and see how it goes and hope for the best.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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