Jaguars beat Blue Heat in penalties for UWS title 

Lancaster defenders block a shot by Blue Heat's Zoe Burns (12) in the second half at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

A magical season came to an end for the Santa Clarita Blue Heat FC on Sunday after falling to the Michigan Jaguars in a penalty shootout in the United Women’s Soccer League championship game. 

Santa Clarita FC dominated possession in the title game at College of the Canyons, but just couldn’t find the back of the net thanks to some tough Jaguar defense and seven saves from Michigan keeper Batoul Reda. 

The game couldn’t be decided in 90 minutes, requiring penalty kicks where Reda made two huge saves to lead Michigan to victory (4-3) in the shootout.  

“We didn’t want to change anything because if it has been working for the past eight games, why change?” said SCFC coach Leonardo Neveleff. “We had great opportunities but their goalkeeper (Reda) was amazing. She had great saves but If we played again, I wouldn’t change anything.” 

Blue Heat keeper Jordan Brown did her part and registered her fifth clean sheet of the season in the national championship match.  

Blue Heat goalkeeper Jordan Brown (1) blocks a shot by Lancaster in the first half at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

The two teams had strong offensive showcases on Saturday in their respective semifinal matchups.  

The blue Heat erased a 2-0 deficit against the Lancaster Inferno FC of Pennsylvania and won the game with two stoppage time goals.  

SCFC dominated possession, controlling the game with a plethora of attacks but nothing got by LIFC keeper Elliott Breech until late in the game. Inferno found holes and countered two goals to take a 2-0 lead heading into the 70th minute. 

A shot by Blue Heat’s Elizabeth Worden (25) is blocked by Lancaster goalkeeper Elliott Breech (00) in the first half at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

Blue Heat captain Ally Lemos drew a foul in the box, awarding her a penalty kick that she drilled to cut the deficit to one goal.  

“The whole time, we obviously were struggling with our finishing,” Lemos said. “We just needed one to get the floodgates open. So after the PK, we got one and I remember yelling, ‘The floodgates are opening, come on, keep going.’ We finally broke the door open and kept pushing until the final whistle.” 

Elizabeth Worden (25) carries Blue Heat teammate Zoe Burns (12) after Burns scored the second goal to tie the score in the final minutes of the game against Lancaster at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

Santa Clarita trailed 2-1 heading into stoppage time but never ceased fire. SCFC defender Zoe Burns was swarmed on the attack but somehow got a shot off. Breech made the initial stop but bobbled the ball, which led to chaos in front of the Lancaster goal. The ball was cleared but a quick steal gave Burns another chance at an equalizer and the Canadian national teamer didn’t disappoint.  

The Blue Heat rode every bit of momentum and went all in for the game-winner. Forward Amanda Perez had given the Lancaster backline fits all game and finally got on the board with less than a minute of stoppage time left. 

Striker Elizabeth Worden found a crease on the left wing and fired in the game-winning assist to Perez, who drilled the goal to send SCFC back to the National Championship match. 

Amanda Perez (17), center, celebrates with Blue Heat teammates after scoring the winning goal in the final seconds of the game against Lancaster at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

Neveleff knew it was only a matter of time before his team broke the seal off the goal. 

“We knew we were going to score one or two goals but the third one came with the momentum,” Neveleff said. “It was amazing, coming back like that. It felt really good for the players. It was legendary. That was epic for the team and we’ll use that in the future for future generations that come to play here.” 

Lancaster won its semifinals match against Sporting Connecticut. The two were tied going into halftime but only the Inferno could keep the heat on and buried two more goals to win the match, 4-2. 

Amalia Villareal registered a hat trick in the match while Sydney Chura also scored. Villareal was one of four Jags to score in the championship shootout and was a huge assignment for the Blue Heat defense. 

“We tried to neutralize their best player, which is No. 27, Amalia,” Neveleff said. “She’s an amazing player so we kept an eye on her and cut off their (passes) to her. Defensively, we did a good job in the middle, holding them back. That was our key just to make sure that she didn’t perform.” 

Villareal is a special talent, and just recently graduated high school. The Jaguars midfielder will soon join Worden at Texas on the Longhorns women’s soccer team. 

Strong goalkeeping can hold any team off the scoreboard. SCFC had nearly a dozen shots on target in each game but was turned away by Breech or forced into tough looks by defenders like Jessica Weinoldt. 

The UWS and its level of competition have continued to grow every year since its birth in 2015. 

“I think women’s soccer as a whole is just growing every single day,” Lemos said. “With the NWSL expanding, that obviously is helping us get equal pay. Women’s soccer is finally getting the attention, the money and all the attention it deserves. We all put so much hard work into it. and I just really think like this league, you can obviously see, the level is just insane. These girls are insane. And then, you know, it’s just an honor to play beside all these girls and against my opponents.” 

Lemos is a playmaking machine. The UCLA midfielder famously set up the National Championship equalizer goal off a corner kick for the Bruins in late 2022 and she nearly found similar results on Sunday.  

Blue Heat’s Sofia Cook (8) passes against Lancaster defenders at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

The midfielder had a smooth slide tackle and promptly sent a pass to Worden for a clear shot on target that was just saved. Lemos also took a deep strike from well outside the box that bounced off the crossbar.  

SCFC defender Bree San Lucas had one of the other closest chances of the game with a strike that was just inches off target. 

“We saw a lot of situations that we could’ve scored but the Jaguars were very organized and very disciplined,” Neveleff said. “So we missed on chances to score but it’s a little bittersweet because I’m happy with the team. Now we’re gonna think about the next year.” 

The Blue Heat just missed out on becoming the first UWS team to achieve three championships but can still hold their heads high as the only team with two.  

Lemos was nonetheless proud of her team’s performance after coming just inches away from the national title. 

“I think we had all the pieces, we were just missing that finishing piece,” Lemos said. “Everything was working except for that. We had opportunity after opportunity and it just came down to us not really finishing, but it happens and it’s part of the game. It’s just kind of hard to swallow when you dominate the whole game and then it happens to be a penalty shootout. It’s kind of up to fate at that point, but I’m proud of what we did this season. Credit to the other team, they came out, played us well.” 

The Bruin will head back to NCAA women’s soccer in the fall along with nearly her whole team, with Blue Heat players heading to Long Beach State, Pepperdine, USC, Texas and Georgia. 

Lemos may also head for the professional route after her upcoming NCAA season and surely won’t be the only UWS star heading for the National Women’s Soccer League. Regardless of where she ends up, she is grateful to Blue Heat President Carlos Marroquin and the organization that has done so much for women’s soccer. 

“Carlos and the whole staff are amazing,” Lemos said. “They put so much faith into us, they put so much of their energy, effort and time into us. So I always wish this program nothing but the best if I’m on the field or not next year. I always wish them the best, especially the girls. This is our little community in the summer, so I’ll always be a Blue Heat fan.” 

Blue Heat President Carlos Marroquin celebrates after his team’s win on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal
Blue Heat player Sofia Cook (8) of Blue Heat heats the ball away from Lancaster defender Elizabeth Wenger (24) at College of the Canyons on Saturday, 072223. Dan Watson/The Signal

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