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UCLA men’s soccer NCAA tournament predictions

UCLA men’s soccer players applaud during the pre-game ceremonies. Six players received All-Pac-12 honors this week. (Shane Yu/Daily Bruin staff)

By Felicia Keller, Anthony Aroyan, Matthew Royer, and Dylan Winward

Nov. 15, 2023 2:49 p.m.

No. 13 seed UCLA men’s soccer awaits the winner of Loyola Marymount and UC Irvine’s first-round contest. The Pac-12 Champions have earned a spot in their third tournament in a row, with their first top-16 seed and first round bye since 2014. Beginning play in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Bruins have No. 4 Georgetown and No. 5 West Virginia on their side of the bracket en route to the College Cup in Louisville, Kentucky. But before the team returns to the pitch, Daily Bruin Sports’ men’s soccer beat is predicting just where UCLA will end its season.

Matthew Royer
Daily Bruin senior staff
Prediction: Loss to James Madison in third round

Jaws 2, the lesser-known sequel to Steven Spielberg’s classic film Jaws, had the cleverest tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water …”

A quippy phrase for an awful movie. But, what appeared sure to be a blockbuster hit just could not get going in the box office.

So, as is the fate of most sequels, UCLA – similarly to Jaws 2, shark and all – will crash and burn.

The Bruins postseason field will be sequel ridden.

Whether against LMU or UC Irvine, the Jack Sarkos-led team will look to repeat or upend history against either club, after splitting results to them earlier in the season. This, I believe, the graduate student forward and the rest of the Bruins will have no problem with.

But next comes trouble in the water for the Bruins, as it will be the club the Bruins last played in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in their second match of the season that will take them down for the second time.

When UCLA played JMU on Aug. 27, there were many unanswered questions for Coach Ryan Jorden’s roster.

The nail-biter of a match was scoreless until the 73rd minute, when a Dukes attacker broke through the Bruins’ defense with a header.

While that loss was the first of only three for the Bruins, when UCLA went down this season, the story was frequently the same – a lack of depth due to injuries and failure to put away the chances created by the dynamic attack led by Sarkos and fellow graduate students, midfielders Ryan Becher and Sean Karani.

It is important to acknowledge, though, that this season has been an upgrade from years past and should be celebrated as Jorden takes the Bruins to the Big Ten in winning fashion.

However, just like a shark navigating the unpredictable depths, UCLA lacks a clear path to make a long run to Louisville and the College Cup.

Anthony Aroyan
Daily Bruin staff
Prediction: Semifinals loss

Now that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are over, the cameras should be focusing their attention on the Bruins.

After a season of ups and downs, goals and missed chances, UCLA managed to surge ahead of its rivals and claim the Pac-12 crown in a classic ending to its time in the historic conference.

Awards season also saw Westwood’s stars pick up silverware of their own.

The Bruins have three All-Pac-12 second team selections: redshirt junior forward Jose Contell, Sarkos and senior defender Tommy Silva. Redshirt junior midfielder Tucker Lepley leads the team as the only player with All-Pac-12 first team honors.

With the chance to face the likes of UC Irvine, JMU or LMU, UCLA will need to forget about its early season woes against the latter two recurring characters. The Bruins lost 1-0 to both opponents in August and October respectively, but defeated the Anteaters in an electric 4-0 display in September.

Both defeats were filler episodes to an otherwise successful season, but the storylines remained the same. The Bruin attack would take shot after shot but be unable to find the back of the net, while a quick break by the opposition caused chaos at the back and put UCLA in a position it could not recover from.

Since losing to LMU, UCLA has gone on a six game undefeated streak, where it scored 10 goals, conceding just three during that stretch. With the return of injured players like Sarkos and Becher, the Bruins have picked up momentum at the right time.

As the team prepares for its postseason run as conference champions, it is clear that the mood around the program is night and day from when Jorden first took over five seasons ago.

From winning just two Pac-12 matches in his first season as head coach, Jorden has turned UCLA into champions once again.

The future’s looking bright.

Dylan Winward
Daily Bruin senior staff
Prediction: Semifinals loss

This draw has more banana peels for the Bruins than a Mario Kart track.

With two teams that UCLA has already lost to in their quarter of the bracket, the team’s record against non-conference teams and the likely need to play away from the comforts of Wallis Annenberg Stadium, a number of hazards await Jorden’s team in this year’s tournament.

Additionally, the Bruins have had bad luck to contend with.

A few injuries to key players – including an early season injury to junior defender Pietro Grassi – have limited Jorden’s ability to play a consistent starting eleven at times.

And the team has struggled defensively, earning only three conference clean sheets.

However, sometimes a run of bad luck can be a good thing for a team.

Jorden’s squad has very little to lose after already exceeding expectations by winning the Pac-12 championship. Teams without the heavy weight of expectations are often able to go further than anyone expects, like the two unseeded teams that made last year’s College Cup. The lack of a top-10 ranking should allow Jorden’s team to play its expansive, attacking soccer without the pressure that haunts higher seeds.

In spite of all the reasons to the contrary, I think the team has the promise to make a deep run in the tournament.

Felicia Keller
Assistant Sports editor
Prediction: Loss in Quarterfinal

Jorden’s team has shown steady improvement since his arrival. From not making the NCAA tournament in 2020, to losing in the second round in 2021, and then the third in 2022.

This year’s Bruins have put together the most complete performance in that time, with a Pac-12 championship trophy to boot.

But this may be Jorden’s last chance for the time being at making a true stomp in the postseason – with a roster full of seniors. While he may be able to replicate this year’s graduate student transfer influx, it will be more difficult to produce a strong senior class for next year, given the only true junior on the current roster is defender Pietro Grassi.

This year’s graduating class consists of four graduate students, four seniors and three redshirt juniors. All but two have featured in over 50% of the games and would have played more minutes if not for injuries.

Those players have all played key roles this season, and should all contribute to Jorden’s best NCAA finish of his tenure, making it one round further than last year.

This team has the makings of a strong postseason team if it stays healthy and buries the opportunities it gets.

But hitting a scoring drought could be the cog in the machine that pulls everything to a halt, and come the third game of the postseason will result in the Bruins falling just short of a College Cup berth.

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Felicia Keller
Matthew Royer | News and Sports senior staff
Royer is a senior staff reporter for the News and Sports sections of the Bruin. He was previously the 2022-2023 assistant News editor for the city and crime beat.
Royer is a senior staff reporter for the News and Sports sections of the Bruin. He was previously the 2022-2023 assistant News editor for the city and crime beat.
Dylan Winward | Features and student life editor
Winward is the 2023-2024 features and student life editor. He was previously a News reporter for campus politics and features and student life. He is also a second-year statistics and english literature student.
Winward is the 2023-2024 features and student life editor. He was previously a News reporter for campus politics and features and student life. He is also a second-year statistics and english literature student.
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