By DAN KARELL
Last season, the UCLA Bruins went into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed, on the back of a 12-3-5 regular season. But if you ask the players and coaches heading into this season, they’ll tell you that they’re even better this season.
Coming off a disappointing third round exit in the NCAA Tournament, UCLA has reloaded and are serious contenders for the title in 2014, and they believe they can put a fifth star on their uniforms.
Ranked No. 1 in SBI preseason Top 25, UCLA return six starters from last year’s team, including leading scorer Leo Stolz and goalkeeper Earl Edwards, while also bringing in one of the most talented recruiting classes in the nation. Specifically, head coach Jorge Salcedo believes that three newcomers to the team will make them a more complete team and give them the edge in a once-again loaded Pac-12.
“This year what we have different is we have some pace in our attack,” Salcedo told SBI in a phone interview. “The past couple of years we’ve been the team that possesses the ball really well and we can break down teams through our possession, but I think this year, with the addition of Larry Ndjock, Abu Danladi, and Seyi (Adekoya), the three of them will give us a dynamic look and feel to our attack that we haven’t had at UCLA in about three years.”
The Bruins and their fans so far have had plenty to cheer about after the team’s first two exhibition games. On Aug. 19, the UCLA beat the University of Nebraska-Omaha, 5-2, and followed that up with a 10-0 thrashing of the Los Angeles All Stars last Saturday, a team made up of some local amateur talent.
Sophomore forward Kevin De La Torre scored a hat-trick in the final exhibition match and Adekoya raced away with two goals. Sophomore midfielder Willy Raygoza finished the match with three assists, and he’s a player the coaching staff is very high on after enduring an injury-filled freshman season.
“Last year, Willy was a highly-touted recruit from the LA Galaxy, and he unfortunately came into the preseason with a broken foot,” Salcedo said. “He broke his foot twice, and its taken him about six months to heal from that, and (now) he’s fully healed and recovered and we’re reaping the benefits of his skills, technical ability, and his vision.”
UCLA kicks off their season officially on Friday against Wake Forest and on Sunday against North Carolina, using their first two games as a strong test to see how good the team actually is this season. But aside from the out-of-conference schedule, the Bruins will face a gauntlet of teams in the regular season, including two weekends with back-to-back matches against powerhouses Cal-Berkley and Stanford, first on the road and then away.
Add in a home-and-home series with Cristian Roldan and Washington and San Diego State and whatever team comes out on top of the Pac-12 will surely be battle hardened for the NCAA Tournament.
“You play this game to play against the top competition,” Junior defender Javan Torre said. “Anybody who can challenge us and make us better as players is what we look forward to.”
Considering the way that the 2013 season ended and that the program’s last national title came in 2002, there’s plenty of reason to think that the coaching staff could alter the way they go about their training to try and find new results.
While Torre confirmed that the coaching staff has been approaching training and games with them in the same manner, he said that this year’s squad has had a more “professional” approach to training, which he hopes pays off in the long run.
“I’d say it’s getting a little bit more refined this year,” Torre said. “We have a great coaching staff right now and we have a common goal, and a much clearer understanding of what our ambitions are for this season. I’d say we’re more professional, more focused this time, and everyone has a clear understanding of their roles.”
With the graduation and departure of defenders Joe Sofia, Reed Williams, forward Victor Chavez, and midfielder Victor Muñoz, there are a few holes to plug in the lineup. Into the lineup already is Freshman defender Chase Gaspar, a regular for the Under-18 USMNT, who has split with Torre for each game this preseason.
Redshirt Junior defender Edgar Contreras has seemingly won a place in the starting lineup, and forwards Andrew Tusaazemajja and Ndjock have each stepped in and look ready to take UCLA to the next level. Along with returning players like Stolz, Michael Amick, and Jordan Vale, Salcedo believes he has the pieces to win the program’s fifth national title.
“If we reach individually and collectively our full potential, the results are going to take care of themselves,” Salcedo said. “Just in these first two preseason matches, even though some of the opponents maybe weren’t as strong as what we will face in the upcoming weekend or throughout the season, we want to live up to a standard that we’ve set for ourselves.
“Each guy has their role, they have their collective goals for the season and we have team goals as well, and we are dead set on accomplishing them.”