College Cup loss can’t take away from Crimson Tide soccer’s historic run

For so much of this 2022 season, it felt like this Alabama Crimson Tide soccer team was immune to losing, incapable of being subdued by an opponent, any opponent, no matter the opponent’s ranking or record or conference affiliation or pedigree. Winning. It’s what the Crimson Tide did. Over and over and over. More times than any team in the country this season.

Since the season started in mid-August, Alabama had taken the pitch 26 times, and 23 times it left the pitch with a ‘W’. Once it left with a tie. Only twice — a 1-0 defeat to Miami on August 21 and a 1-0 defeat to South Carolina on November 6 — did the Tide narrowly come up short.

Even last Friday on the biggest stage of women’s college soccer — the College Cup, the holy grail of the sport — at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C., against one of the premier teams in the country this season, Pac-12 powerhouse UCLA, everyone bleeding crimson and white waited for Alabama to do its thing. Again. Win. Advance to Monday’s national championship game to take on the all-time queen of women’s college soccer, North Carolina.

UCLA, a No. 1 seed itself like Alabama, went up 1-0 in the first half. No cause for alarm, right? Alabama had been down a goal before and came back. But then, in the second half, as the wait for Bama’s sure-to-come surge continued, UCLA made it 2-0. Shortly thereafter, it was 3-0. And time? It kept ticking. Not just on the match itself but on Alabama’s dream season.

The clock finally hit all zeroes. UCLA 3. Alabama 0. This time there was no Alabama rally, no Alabama pulling out yet another win. Just a scene of celebrating UCLA players and coaches. It seemed almost surreal. This isn’t supposed to happen. Not for this 2022 Alabama women’s soccer team. This isn’t how the story is supposed to end.

Just not the night for the Crimson Tide

But that’s how it did end. It just wasn’t Alabama’s night.

But, oh, it could have been. In the first half, with the score still knotted at 0-0, Riley Mattingly Parker’s brilliant, diving, head-in goal off a picture-perfect pass from Felicia Knox sent the Tide sidelines and the bundled-up Tide fans in attendance into a roaring frenzy. But only momentarily. Parker was ruled to be offsides by the narrowest of margins, and the goal was erased. There would be no Alabama 1, UCLA 0. Close. So close. But no.

In the second half, both Riley Tanner and Knox sent shots just inches wide of the bottom goal corners. Shots that would normally find thread for Bama veered slightly off the mark on this early December night. Sure, UCLA had some close calls too throughout the evening, but dazzling stops by Bama keeper McKinley Crone had more to do with those not going in than sheer misfortune.

How might the whole complexion of Friday night’s semifinal have been different had Parker’s goal counted, had Alabama 1, UCLA 0 stood up as the first-half score? How might the course of the game changed in the second half had Tanner’s shot or Knox’s shot found the inside corner rather than slide wide? One will never know.

As it turns out, perfect endings don’t always come. Even for storybook seasons.

And this was a storybook season no one saw coming. Well, no one except the Bama coaches and players, who, since losing to BYU in the second-round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, put in the work, day after day, grinding, sacrificing, and pushing themselves in hopes of building an even bigger and better 2022 — bigger and better than winning the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament game, which they accomplished in 2021.

They did just that in 2022. And more. Way more. And on an historic scale. They knocked off highly touted foe after highly touted foe. They went from unranked in the preseason to No. 1 in all the land by November. They didn’t just win their first SEC regular season championship, they dominated the conference like few teams have ever done, going undefeated in league play. They won the Iron Bowl of soccer in dramatic fashion on the road and then made a memorable run in the SEC Tournament in Pensacola, Fla., before finally hitting what turned out to be a mere speed bump in the tourney finals.

Carrying a well-earned No. 1 seed into the NCAA Tournament, Alabama rolled past Jackson State (9-0), Portland (2-1) and UC Irvine (3-1) before taking out No. 2 seed and perennial national power Duke (3-2 in overtime) in front of a sold-out Alabama Soccer Stadium to advance to the final four.

Maybe no one else saw all this coming in 2022. The goals. The shutouts. The statement-making triumphs. The win streaks. The setting of records. The championships. The overflow crowds. The local and national buzz. The individual and team accolades. The run to the College Cup. The Alabama coaches and players didn’t just see it coming. They made it come.

UCLA made it all stop. Well, for this season anyway.

Several players off this 2022 Alabama Crimson Tide squad will be back in 2023, and coach Wes Hart has signed a new crop of promising incoming freshmen to add to the mix. Perhaps more additions will come, too, via the transfer portal. All indications are that Alabama soccer is here to stay now and primed to be a force to be reckoned with on the national stage of women’s college soccer moving forward.

More huge wins. More Iron Bowl victories. More Crimson Tide SEC championships. More No. 1 seeds. More runs to the College Cup. More December soccer. More honors. All likely headed Bama’s way in 2023 and beyond. Perhaps a national championship trophy will one day hold a place in Alabama soccer’s trophy case as well. Perhaps more than one.

What twinge of melancholy exists now is not because of what’s to come, it’s because of what is over.

There will never again be another storybook, out-of-nowhere, wildly unexpected, shake-up-the-sport, eyebrow-raising, movie-worthy, here-we-are, scoot-over-and-make-room-for-us thrill ride this 2022 Alabama Crimson Tide women’s soccer team embarked on this autumn. There can and will always be only one of those, and that’s what makes this 2022 Alabama team special, what will always separate it from any and all future successful teams that call the Alabama Soccer Stadium home.

This team was the trailblazer. The foundation setter. The fire starter.

That coveted national championship trophy? No, Alabama didn’t hoist it in 2022. But what happened over the course of 90 minutes on a chilly Friday night in Cary, N.C., in early December doesn’t change or diminish what this team accomplished over a four-month span.

No, the ending wasn’t perfect, but endings rarely are. It’s the ride that’ll be remembered most. And it was one heck of a ride for this 2022 Alabama soccer team this autumn. One heck of a ride no one — well, almost no one — saw coming.