UCLA Men's Soccer
Opponent: Cal Poly (11-4-5)
When: 7:00 PM PST, Thursday, November 19, 2015
Where: Drake Stadium, Los Angeles, CA
Video: UCLA Live Stream
Live Stats: UCLA Live Stats
UCLA's postseason begins tonight at Drake Stadium against Cal Poly (11-4-5). The 25th-ranked Bruins (10-8-1) have had a season of ups and downs. They've played some of their best soccer against several of the top teams in the country, and they've played some of their worst soccer against the weakest teams in the Pac-12.
Which UCLA team will show up tonight: the team that beat #5 Akron on the road less than three weeks ago, or the team that lost to the Pac-12 cellar dwellers last week? Honestly, I don't know. The Bruins have been consistently inconsistent this season. They have the talent to win the 2015 Men's College Cup, but they've too often demonstrated a lack of organization that could easily lead to a first round exit.
In case this is the first time you've tuned in since last season's heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to Virginia, Coach Salcedo brought in another top-rated recruiting class, and the Bruins entered the 2015 season as the top-ranked team in the preseason NSCAA Coaches Poll. Unfortunately, they weren't able to hold that spot for long.
After winning the season opener against New Mexico, the Bruins lost to #27 Maryland and #3 Georgetown on their east coast road trip, and then returned home only to be upended by UC Riverside. Another loss a week later to #26 UC Santa Barbara dropped the Bruins to 2-4 just 10 days before the start of the Pac-12 season.
UCLA recovered with two successive wins against VCU and UC Irvine before losing their conference opener in double overtime in Corvallis. It was a pattern that would continue throughout the regular season: win a couple, lose one, win one, lose another.
On October 19th, UCLA crushed Cal 6-0. Six days later, Cal beat the Bruins 4-3. The Bruins twice dominated games against #6 Stanford, yet they failed to win either of them due to defensive errors that led directly to goals.
UCLA probably saved its season with the 4-2 win over Akron. The Bruins then returned home to beat Oregon State 4-1 and Washington 2-1. The three-game winning streak was the longest of the season, and I optimistically thought that the Bruins were finally starting to gel.
But it was too good to be true. The Bruins looked flat in their season finale against the Aztecs, a team that they'd previously beaten 4-0. UCLA outshot SDSU in regulation, but when the game went to overtime, SDSU always looked like the team more likely to score--the team more likely to find a way to win.
For what it's worth, UCLA has lost twice as many overtime games as it has won this year. That, unfortunately, is the sign of a soft team.
The Bruins have no lack of talent, though. UCLA has two of the best forwards in college soccer in Seyi Adekoya and Abu Danladi. It also has two of the nation's best freshmen in midfielders Jose Hernandez and Jackson Yueill. The Bruins have big game experience from front to back and side to side, with goalkeeper being the only exception.
UCLA ranks third nationally in scoring offense with a 2.37 goals per game average. That's a phenomenally good scoring average which reflects the Bruins' great individual talent. However, at the defensive end, UCLA ranks 156th in goals against average, conceding an average of 1.61 goals per game. Sadly, that reflects a lack of organization, concentration, and toughness at the back.
After witnessing the individual brilliance of so many of the Bruins at various times this season, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bruins are somehow less than the sum of their parts. In most games, UCLA has dominated possession and created more and better chances than their opponents. Yet the Bruins all too often give up soft goals that are the result of loose passes at the back, balls that aren't from the box, or one-pass counterattacks that open up the UCLA defense.
It's not a matter of fixing a single flaw. Coach Salcedo has toyed with his formation, switching from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-1. The change has resulted in slight improvement, but the UCLA defense is still best described as fragile.
Cal Poly is a good team, but certainly not a great team. The Mustangs rank 88th in scoring offense, averaging slightly less than a goal and a half per game, and they rank 60th in goals against average at 1.03 goals/game.
Two months ago, UCLA won its regular season match against Cal Poly 4-1. As has happened frequently this season, the Bruins fell behind in the first half when the Bruins failed to clear a ball from their box and the Mustangs' Adam Olsen made them pay. UCLA came back in the second half to score four unanswered goals, starting with a goal by defender Michael Amick, and followed by a blast from Jackson Yueill and a pair of goals from Seyi Adekoya. Yueill and Abu Danladi finished the game with a pair of assists.
I've noted previously that UCLA often looks tentative in the opening half hour of their games. Interestingly, the Bruins have scored two-thirds of their goals in the second half and have conceded nearly 60% of their goals allowed in the second frame. If we attribute that to the Bruins adopting a cautious, defensive-minded approach at the start of their games, it suggests that the Bruins are better off when they are more aggressive. UCLA has outscored its opponents by a total of four goals in the first half of games, and by a total of 11 goals in the second half of their games. Also, the Bruins have been outscored 4-2 in overtime periods, which also suggests that the Bruins aren't effective when they stop being aggressive in attack.
Cal Poly may not have the big game experience of the Bruins, but the Mustangs are a senior-led team. Two-time Big West midfielder Chase Minter leads the Mustangs in scoring with seven goals, and forward Matt Lagrassa has five goals to go with three assists. Senior defender Kip Colvey leads the Mustangs' back line, and senior Wade Hamilton handles the goalkeeping duties. A fifth Mustang to keep an eye on is freshman forward George Grote; he's tied for the team lead in assists with six.
On paper, based on individual talent, this is a game that the Bruins should win 9 out of 10 times. On the pitch, it's probably closer to a toss up. My prediction is that Coach Salcedo will get his tactics wrong but that the Bruins will edge the Mustangs 3-2. I'd love to see the Bruins play to their potential in the tournament, but everything I've seen leading up to this point of the season tells me that I'm likely to see more of the same: frustratingly inconsistent results.