The smiles on the faces of UCLA’s men’s soccer team said it all: pure joy ““ and relief. The Bruins were celebrating with the conference trophy last Friday after winning their final regular season game, even though they had trailed in the second half before pulling away with two goals to get the victory and clinch the title.
“It was definitely joy, but it was a little bit of relief as well, knowing we were so close to losing what we really worked so hard for over the season,” said senior forward/midfielder Evan Raynr, who had an assist on each goal.
For UCLA (13-2-3), the win was a relief, but not a surprise. The team has won two straight conference titles and four of the last five. Not only that, the Bruins believe they are constructed to come from behind in games because of their depth and approach.
“The way we play soccer, the way that Jorge Salcedo has built this team, we’ve been able to value those things that make a soccer team great as a team, and not just successful at winning games, but really what makes the entire team successful by playing the game the right way,” Raynr said.
UCLA’s possession-oriented attacking style is an approach that few other teams in collegiate soccer employ. Because of that, the Bruins constantly sub players in and out of games as they continue to press the issue on offense.
“Unlike most teams, I think that’s the one quality that we really have going for us, is that when we bring in our subs, we raise our level of ability,” Raynr said.
“I really think it’s that ability to strike even harder and push even harder on teams once they’re tired, once they’re bringing in players who are of lesser quality than their starters; that’s why we get so many late-game goals, that’s why we dominate so much in the second half.”
The team’s depth was recognized with nine Bruins earning All-Conference honors. Senior midfielder/forward Ryan Hollingshead, who headed in the tying goal on Friday, was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
Salcedo was named Coach of the Year in the conference for the second straight time, and the fourth time in his career.
As the No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament, UCLA earned a bye in the first round and will host a second round game against the University of San Diego on Sunday.
The Bruins were one game short of the national championship game last season, falling on penalty kicks in the College Cup. Like last season, UCLA will have to win three straight games to make it back to the College Cup, but Salcedo said the Bruins cannot get caught looking ahead. As strong as the team has been in the second half of games this season, it will need to play with a sense of urgency right from the start.
“What I’ve learned as a coach, and what I think is the most important thing is, (is) to convey that the first half of Sunday night’s game is the most important thing,” Salcedo said.
“With it being single elimination and soccer being a sport where anything can happen, the only thing we can do is prepare ourselves as well as we can so we can be as ready to go as possible.”