Gathering herself from 18 yards out on the 21st minute of Friday’s home opener, senior midfielder Kiana Palacios was caught in a crowded flurry of Portland defenders. With an impressive resume that had earned her a starting spot with the Mexican National team last season and already a first team Big West all-conference preseason nod this year, the opposition had every reason to be concerned.
Palacios turned her back to Portland’s net, keeping the ball on her toes as two defenders attempted to sandwich her and claw at the ball. Peering over her shoulder for a split second, taking a snapshot of the target, Palacios turned left and flicked the ball seemingly over her own left shoulder, over the two defenders, over the leaping keeper and high into the net.
Palacios’ goal went on to further fuel a ferocious offense that produced a 3-0 victory for the UC Irvine women’s soccer team (1-1-1) over Portland (2-2-0), their first win of the season. Having departed for her opportunity to play with the Mexican National team towards the latter end of the season last year, it was also a welcome sign that one of the ‘Eaters most versatile strikers is officially back.
“It’s been awhile [since I’ve been with the team] so it feels really great to be back with the team…I’ve missed them,” Palacios said of her return to Anteater Stadium.
Palacios was not done for the night, enjoying another goal in the 78th minute to patent UCI’s lead. The Mission Viejo product now has 20 career goals, becoming the 12 ‘Eater to do so. She currently leads all active players on the squad with 50 career starts.
“She’s back and that’s good for everybody,” coach Juniper said. “She’s very difficult to handle…she pops up in different spaces, she’s very good one v. one, she’s very good defensively. There is not a whole lot she can’t do…and she makes all the players around her all that better.”
While Palacios came away with the game winner she was not the only player who caught fire offensively as the ‘Eaters had an arsenal of weapons to work with. Redshirt senior forward Noel Baham registered a match-high five shots (two on goal) and bombed in her first goal on the season within the 65th minute to give UCI a 2-0 advantage. Baham also recorded an assist for setting up Palacios’ wheeling flick in the first half.
Freshman forward Sydney Carr showed off some quick footwork, spinning off defenders and impressive crosses into the box. Carr also continued to tease at converting her first collegiate goal, with three chances on the night—one of which clinked off the post late in the second half.
“She’s frustrated [because] she wants to be scoring goals,” coach Juniper said. “She had so many opportunities…but you can see she created a lot of chances tonight and I think the Anteater fans are going to really enjoy watching her for four years. I love it that she is so frustrated because if she could just point that at the right direction she is going to have a wonderful career here.”
UCI dictated the tempo of the match right from the opening second, firing up all 10 shots in the first half while finishing with 15 (six on goal).
The ‘Eaters also captured seven corners in their efforts to advance the ball, the most in a match on the young season thus far.
“I think we dominated the vast majority of the possessions which is a full credit to the team for the work that they’ve done because Portland is an exceptional team with a handful of former youth national team players…and it’s a program that has won a national championship in the past,” coach Juniper said. “For our team to go out there and pick them apart like that…I thought it was great.”
Defensively, UCI’s backline played much like they had in Arizona, applying constant pressure to eradicate Portland’s opportunities to set up a shred of a clean look at the net. By the end of the night, the Pilots managed to muster up two shots in the middle of the second half.
“We’ve had that [backline] force together for a year now…all playing together,” coach Juniper said. “It’s phenomenal to have such [a group] with good personalities and good character.”
Surprisingly, the ‘Eaters backline also pushed the ball up the field on a number of occasions, setting up the offense as opposed to simply clearing the ball out behind midfield. Junior defender Jonnae Joseph, who once played at the midfielder/forward position in her first year at UCI, found herself sprinting up towards Portland’s net, taking on defenders of her own.
While she had successfully held the fort as one of the ‘Eaters core defenders along with senior Andrea Mensen, redshirt junior Reema Bzeih, and redshirt sophomore Aleah Kelley, Joseph came away with her first career assist as she played a hand in setting up the match’s first goal.
With their impressive offensive play and ongoing high-intensity defense, UCI will look to keep the victories coming when they welcome Penn this Friday for an earlier 4:00pm start.
“We’ve already got a good understanding of what [Penn] are going to bring but we don’t play teams from the Ivy League very often so that’s going to be interesting for us,” coach Juniper said.