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Madelyn Desiano fought back from two ACL tears and sets the tone for No. 1 UCLA soccer

UCLA women's soccer's player Madelyn Desiano controls the ball during a match.
(Courtesy of Scott Chandler / UCLA Athletics)
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Out with the knee brace, in with the shin guards. Madelyn Desiano is finally equipped to lead UCLA’s defensive renaissance.

UCLA is the top-ranked team in the country for the first time since 2017 thanks, in part, to first-year head coach Margueritte Aozasa’s defense-first philosophy based on discipline, fitness and hard work. The engine is Desiano, a fifth-year senior defender who knows hard work better than most. The San Clemente native has overcome two ACL injuries and three knee surgeries to become one of only two field players to start every game for the Bruins (6-0) this season.

Playing without the bulky knee brace around her left leg for the first time since she sat out the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Desiano ran nearly nine miles per game in UCLA’s milestone victories at Duke and North Carolina on Sept. 1 and 4, respectively, which vaulted the Bruins to the top ranking. The heavy workload, even in heat and humidity, didn’t damper Desiano’s celebration as she sought out goalie Lauren Brzykcy, who had 13 saves on the weekend. The pair of grad students who have played together since they were 8 years old rejoiced.

“This is why we stayed,” Desiano said of the message in the moment.

Desiano, who first hatched her dream of playing college soccer after watching the Bruins win the NCAA championship in 2013, committed to UCLA at 15 years old. A high school All-American at Aliso Niguel, the 5-foot-6 defender enrolled early in Westwood, in part to add muscle to compete at the college level. Although her legs could carry her for miles during games with her successful SoCal Blues club team and the U.S. youth national teams, they were just tiny, she said.

Then during a spring game before her freshman season, Desiano crumbled with a noncontact knee injury. The news of a torn ACL didn’t feel upsetting, Desiano remembered. She had several friends who had come back after the injury. She considered it a normal risk of making the jump to college soccer and transitioned seamlessly into rehabilitation work.

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It was the second injury — suffered on a hard cut only weeks after being cleared to return following the first surgery — that crushed her.

“I didn’t even get a glimpse of what it felt to play again,” Desiano said. “So I’m like, ‘Will I ever play again?’ ”

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Desiano cried when coaches called her name for her college debut in February 2021, the pandemic-delayed spring season. She joked she probably didn’t complete a single pass in 24 minutes of action in a 3-0 win against San Diego. The left back played in 29 games with 12 starts in her first two seasons on the field, leading UCLA with nine assists last season while playing with the black brace around her knee as the Bruins won their second consecutive Pac-12 championship.

UCLA was undefeated at 16-0-3 heading into the NCAA tournament. With the No. 2 seed, the Pac-12’s best goals-against average and All-American forward Mia Fishel, the Bruins looked ready to contend for their second NCAA championship.

UC Irvine stunned them in the first round with a 1-0 upset.

It was the second consecutive season the Pac-12 champion Bruins failed to advance to the College Cup.

While the program was known for skilled attacking players, its defensive philosophy felt more like just chasing after the ball when a player lost it. The lack of defensive principles might have contributed to UCLA’s inconsistent postseason results, Desiano said.

“In the past, UCLA may not have given up a lot of goals, but a lot of that was individual heroics,” said Aozasa, who remembered scouting the Bruins as a Stanford assistant and seeing diving saves from Brzykcy or last-ditch clearances off the line. “But the thing about that is as the season goes on, a little bit of it feels like is left up to chance and that’s what we’re trying to avoid with structure and organization.”

Aozasa, who helped Stanford to two national championships during her seven-year tenure as an assistant, laid out her defense-first strategy when she was hired in December to replace Amanda Cromwell, who departed for the NWSL’s Orlando Pride. Defensive structure can lead to more attacking freedom, the first-time head coach explained. She asked for a mindset shift to understand how the game starts on the defensive side, which flows into a fast-paced attacking style. She reinforced the importance of fitness, preached a physical brand of defense and, to prove it, brought shin guards back to practice.

UCLA women's soccer's Madelyn Desiano high-fives teammates during a match.
(Jesus Ramirez)
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Shin guards, while required during games, aren’t common training accessories for most teams, Aozasa said. But she and her coaches made the decision early to set the tone that the Bruins would be an aggressive team, train the way they play and actually tackle one another.

Desiano, for one, was happy to bring her shin guards back to practice.

“She had her coaching philosophy and a lot of it was defense matters and fitness matters and hard work matters,” Desiano said. “And I was like, ‘Yes, I love this. This is what I’ve been saying.’ ”

Knowing Aozasa’s commitment to defense, Desiano felt pressure to step up her game to earn a full-time starting role for the first time in her career. Her speed is back after two seasons on the bench. Her offensive touch and field vision are as sharp as ever. The last piece was regaining her defensive swagger.

Madelyn Desiano 2.0 has arrived.

“I am definitely better than the player I was before my ACL,” she said.

Desiano willingly charges up and down the field, using her understanding of the game to send early balls into the box for attacking opportunities. She tracks back on defense. It’s the attitude Aozasa wants to see from her team.

“Maddi’s not afraid of a little hard work,” the coach said.

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Sept. 14, 2022

When challenges stacked up during Desiano’s recovery, she pushed through with the hope of pursuing her childhood dream. It fueled her through days that brought more losses than wins as her second knee injury turned into microtears in her labrum, forcing her to strengthen her knee without aggravating the muscles in her hip. Pain lingered and she had to get an additional knee surgery.

It took a summer day in 2020 to give Desiano her first small victory. Working out at the field near Wasserman Football Center, she completed a set of tempo runs pain-free.

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Even with her first breakthrough in almost a year, Desiano didn’t let herself dream big that day. Hopes to score the winning goal against Stanford were replaced by the sweet relief that she could complete a simple exercise. She was on her way.

Finally, two years later with the nation’s best team, Desiano and the Bruins are dreaming again and their goals are bigger than just a top ranking during nonconference games.

“This is really cool,” Aozasa said. “But it would be a lot cooler in December.”

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