With all but three starters returning from last year’s NCAA runner-up team and the preseason No. 1 ranking, expectations were high for UCLA men’s soccer.
Then the losses piled up. Their season and post-season fate hung in the balance multiple times – against Stanford, against Cal, against Akron. Each time they had an answer and clawed themselves back into the NCAA Tournament bracket.
A 10-8-1 record, a season of struggles and the Bruins finally have what they played for.
A clean slate.
Thursday night’s first round matchup against Cal Poly (11-4-5, 5-1-4 Big West) gives UCLA its first chance to redeem a tumultuous and challenging season.
“Every team’s at 0-0 right now,” said coach Jorge Salcedo. “Right now, it’s just about winning and advancing, and to do that we have to prepare for the right performance.”
The team’s preparation began in blistering winds with sprints up and down an empty practice pitch on Tuesday morning.
Divided into yellow and orange teams, the team simulated a real game. Emotions rose as players alternated between furious, heated outbursts and directing and guiding each other into proper position.
Defenders continually collided as they leapt towards the floating ball and wound up on the grass. Attackers slid for loose balls, often landing awkwardly.
All of this in hopes of combining their potent offense and steady defense with hustle and determination.
“It has to come from the whole group, not just four or five guys,” said senior defender Javan Torre. “It’s about being disciplined and making sure communication is high between all of us.”
Against a Mustangs team that has lost only one regular season match since a 4-1 loss in Westwood back in mid-September, the Bruins brace themselves for not only a chilly breeze but also for a team with more weapons, more experience and more confidence.
They didn’t have rhythm or confidence when we first played them,” said sophomore Abu Danladi. “But they’ve beaten good teams since then behind their attack. They can run in and finish their chances and break the other defenses down.”
The early-season win highlighted a UCLA offense that ranks second in the NCAA in goals scored per game and has carried the team all season.
But another College Cup run hinges on not only a blitzing offense but also on the Bruins fortifying their defense.
Penalty kicks and practice drills against dummies at the tail end of practice were all aimed to prepare UCLA for its defensive stand.
“Ball rotation and ball movement has to be sharp and we have to make the right decision.” Salcedo said. “Make right choices in how and when we go into those channels. We like to change the side of attack, but we can’t get caught with the ball in a bad spot, especially in our half of the field.”
If they survive and advance past the Mustangs, the Bruins will travel to face No. 11-seed Seattle (17-3-1, 9-1-0 Western Athletic Conference) in the second round. The Redhawks are in the middle of a nine-game win streak and one of the best seasons in school history, having earned their second post-season berth and first top-16 seed.