The 19th-ranked Bruins (8-7-1, 3-3-1) took a big step towards earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament with a 4-2 victory over #6 Akron on Sunday. UCLA looked sharp from the outset on offense, and defensively the Bruins made fewer costly mistakes than usual. Against the Zips, the Bruins high pressing game paid dividends, particularly in the first half, but it also left UCLA exposed at times. Akron's first goal perfectly demonstrated how vulnerable UCLA's back line is to counterattacks; the Bruins were slow to see and react to an Akron attacker running into the right channel, which resulted in a single simple diagonal pass cutting open the UCLA back line.
Seyi Adekoya, Abu Danladi, and Jose Hernandez shredded the Zips' defense with their creativity, their movement, and their finishing. Adekoya and Hernandez both scored a brace, and Danladi assisted on all three goals the Bruins scored from open play. The final goal scored by Hernandez came from the penalty spot.
Pepe Barroso Silva was in goal for the Bruins with Juan Cervantes sitting out due to a suspension. Barroso Silva's performance was adequate rather than impressive; it's unclear whether Cervantes will reclaim the starting spot when he returns.
With just three games remaining in the regular season, UCLA probably needs two wins to ensure postseason play. The Bruins are in fourth place in the conference, a full game ahead of fifth-place Oregon State. With a win today and a win on Sunday against third-place Washington, the Bruins would leapfrog the Huskies and the Golden Bears into second place in the Pac-12 standings. That should be enough to lock up an NCAA Tournament berth, although a win in the Bruins' final regular season game against last-place San Diego State could prove very valuable in terms of tournament seeding.
Before any UCLA fan starts to relax about the Bruins' relatively straightforward, manageable path to postseason play, remember that the only consistency in Coach Salcedo's team is its inconsistency. The 2015 Bruins have the talent to beat any team in the country, but they are also generous to a fault in defense. The two goals allowed to Akron on Sunday nearly matched UCLA's goals against average for the season, so as well as the Bruins played against the Zips, it's fair to say that the team's faults were overcome, not corrected.
Good teams don't concede an average of two goals per game. In the final analysis, unless something clicks in the final three games for the Bruins' defense, it's not good enough to get UCLA back to the national championship game. Nevertheless, UCLA is a team that no opponent will want to face in the tournament.
Today, though, is about taking another small step towards postseason play. The Beavers are a defense-first team; in the Pac-12, OSU is last in shots and next-to-last in goals. However, Oregon State isn't a great defensive team, ranking in the middle Pac-12 in goals against average. And the Beavers are a much better home team, where they enjoy a significant advantage as visitors typically struggle to adapt to the long grass in the pasture that OSU uses as its pitch.
Oregon State enters today's game with a four game losing streak, scoring just one goal in its last 6 hours of soccer. That's good news for the Bruins' shaky defense. On the other hand, given the Bruins' vulnerability to counterattacks and OSU's ability to absorb pressure for long periods of time, UCLA will have to be careful to avoid falling into the Beavers' trap.
A win this afternoon would be another small but important step for the Bruins as they make their run for postseason qualification.