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2015 UCLA Men's Soccer Preview - Primed for a Championship

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UCLA returns a strong core group of players from last year's College Cup finalists. Can Coach Salcedo lead the team to a national championship?

@UCLAMSoccer

Opponent: Mexico U-17 National Team (Exhibition)

When: 5:00 PM PDT, Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Where: North Athletic Field

Bruins Nation's 2015 Men's Soccer Preview

The Basics

Preseason Rankings:

NSCAA Preseason Coaches Poll: 1st Nationally

Pac-12 Coaches Poll: 1st in the Pac-12

Departing Players:
  • GK Earl Edwards Jr.
  • D Aaron Simmons
  • MF Leo Stolz
  • F Andrew Tusaazemajja
Key Returning Players:
  • F Abu Danladi (So.)
  • F Larry Ndjock (Sr.)
  • F Seyi Adekoya (So.)
  • F Christian Chavez (So.)
  • MF Brian Iloski (Jr.)
  • MF Felix Vobejda (Jr.)
  • MF Jordan Vale (Sr.)
  • MF Willie Raygoza (Jr.)
  • D Michael Amick (Jr.)
  • D Edgar Contreras (RSr.)
  • D Nathan Smith (Jr.)
  • D Chase Gasper (So.)
  • D Javan Torre (Sr.)
  • D/MF Grady Howe (Sr.)
Key Newcomers:
  • F Abdullah Adam (Jr.)
  • F DJ Villegas (Fr.)
  • MF/F Stephen Payne (Fr.)
  • MF Jackson Yueill (Fr.)
  • MF Jose Hernandez (Fr.)
  • MF Alberto Poleo (Fr.)
  • MF Tobias Henneke (Fr.)
  • MF Matthew Powell (Fr.)
  • D Malcolm Jones (Fr.)
  • D Erik Holt (Fr.)
  • GK Dakota Havlick (Fr.)

Although the Bruins lost two very important players from the squad that lost to Virginia in the College Cup Final last year--midfielder Leo Stolz and goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr.--Coach Salcedo has a roster rich in talent and experience. This is a team primed for success.

Coach Salcedo has a well-deserved reputation as an elite recruiter, and he's demonstrated that skill again with his third consecutive top-rated freshman class. Not only is his freshman class of 2015 filled with talent, it's 13 players strong.

The entire back line from last year's team returns. Junior Michael Amick anchors the defense, and there's no doubt about his quality:

The Bruins also return all but one of a very potent group of forwards. The trio of Larry Ndjock, Abu Danladi, and Seyi Adekoya scored nearly half of UCLA's goals last year in limited minutes. It's likely that they will be even more prolific in 2015.

The Bruins have strength, experience and depth in midfield. Leo Stolz' creativity will certainly be missed, but the midfield may be more balanced and tidier this season. If the work rate of the Bruin midfielders improves, the unit will more than compensate for the loss of Stolz.

Although there isn't a clear candidate to replace Earl Edwards Jr. in goal, Coach Salcedo has several good options. With two exhibition games before the start of the season, Coach Salcedo has plenty of opportunity to select a new first choice goalkeeper.

The Schedule

The Bruins face a challenging slate of opponents in 2015. After a second exhibition match on Saturday (at home against San Francisco), the Bruins open their non-conference schedule against New Mexico, which is ranked 31st in the preseason NSCAA Coaches poll. UCLA then has away matches in the first week of September against #13 Maryland and #3 Georgetown.

The Bruins have another stretch of difficult matches at the end of the month before the onset of conference play. In the space of six days, UCLA will play host to UC Santa Barbara and VCU (both receiving votes in the NSCAA Coaches preseason poll) before finishing the week with a  game against #20 UC Irvine.

The Bruins' schedule doesn't get any easier once conference games begin. The Pac-12 remains a strong conference, with half of the six teams (UCLA, Stanford, Washington) ranked in the top-10 to start the season, and California not far behind at #16.

The most challenging stretch of games for the Bruins begins in mid-October with games against Stanford and Cal at home, followed by a road trip to the Bay Area for away matches against those teams, followed by a road trip to Ohio to play top-25 Akron. Just a week later, the Bruins will play their final regular season home game when they host Washington in a match that may well determine the Pac-12 title.

Overall, this is a schedule that should prepare UCLA very well for the NCAA tournament.

The Players

As I mentioned previously, Coach Salcedo has recruited a huge and immensely talented freshmen class to complement a strong group of returning players.

Considering the fact that UCLA returns the vast majority of last year's contributors, it may be difficult for many of the freshmen to earn significant playing time, so don't be surprised if a fair number of them end up redshirting this season. However, Coach Salcedo has never hesitated to give playing time to freshmen, and with nine of the freshmen ranked in the College Soccer News top-150, including two (Jackson Yueill and Malcolm Jones) in the top-10, there's no doubt that some of the freshmen will earn playing time in 2015.

UCLA looks particularly strong along the front line. Senior Larry Ndjock returns along with sophomores Abu Danladi and Seyi Adekoya. Ndjock was the Bruins' second-leading goal scorer last season with seven goals to Leo Stolz' nine, but Ndjock played over 800 fewer minutes than Stolz. Sophomore Abu Danladi played even less--over 1200 minutes fewer than Stolz--but nevertheless scored five goals and led the Bruins in assists with six. Similarly, sophomore Seyi Adekoya played nearly 1200 minutes fewer than Stolz but still scored five goals and collected 4 assists. This trio of forwards definitely has the firepower to more than replace the goal-scoring of the departed Stolz and Tusaazemajja.

But the Bruins will have a lot of scoring punch on the bench as well. Sophomore Christian Chavez started eight games at forward last season and proved to be a valuable contributor. Junior Abdullah Adam comes to UCLA from Lyon College where he led the team with 13 goals and six assists last season. He earned first team All-American Midwest Conference honors as well as being an All-Academic selection in 2014, and was named American Midwest Freshman of the Year in 2013. He's a welcome addition to UCLA. Last but not least, freshman DJ Villegas is very highly rated, and has experience with the USA National team at the U14, U15, U16, and U18 level.

Although the loss of Leo Stolz leaves a large hole in midfield for Coach Salcedo to fill, he has a strong group of candidates with plenty of experience. Juniors Felix Vobejda and Brian Iloski both played substantial minutes last season, as did senior Jordan Vale. Junior Willie Raygoza played a smaller role last year, but he still managed nine starts and will undoubtedly play more minutes this year.

Senior Grady Howe is back too. He started 20 games last season, and appears set to return to the defensive midfielder role that he played in 2014.

Coach Salcedo has a lot of midfielders in his 2015 freshman class. I suspect that a fair percentage of them will redshirt. In my opinion, the most likely to earn playing time are four-star freshman Jackson Yueill and Tobias Henneke from Munich. Yueill has valuable experience as a starter for the United States U18 National Team, and Henneke has experience in Germany's Junioren Bundesliga.

The Bruins are fortunate to have all four starting defenders return for 2015. Team captain and First Team All-Pac-12 defender Michael Amick returns to anchor central defense. The junior will probably be paired with redshirt senior Edgar Contreras, who started 21 games last year. Senior Javan Torre and freshman Erik Holt will likely provide valuable minutes off the bench in central defense.

Sophomore Chase Gaspar will undoubtedly start at left back. He proved to be steady in defense and a real threat going forward last year. On the right side, junior Nathan Smith is probably Coach Salcedo's first choice at the moment, but don't be surprised to see freshman Malcolm Jones earn a lot of playing time in that spot.

The biggest question mark heading into the season is which player will replace Earl Edwards Jr. in goal. One possibility is that Coach Salcedo will opt for "veteran" redshirt junior Juan Cervantes. Cervantes hasn't played since 2012, but he was credited with three wins and a draw in four starts back in 2012, logging a 0.91 GAA.

Alternatively, Coach Salcedo might turn to redshirt freshman Pepe Barroso Silva or, less likely, true freshman Dakota Havlick. Silva is a product of the Atletico de Madrid club system and has plenty of experience against high quality opposition in Spain's Division Honor Juveniles. At this point, my best guess is that Cervantes probably has a slight edge in the competition to replace Edwards.

Head Coach Jorge Salcedo

Coach Jorge Salcedo has been in charge of UCLA's men's soccer program since 2004. In his 11 seasons leading the program, the Bruins have not won a national championship in spite of often having one of the most talented teams in the nation.

Coach Salcedo has been frequently criticized by the Bruins Nation community for fielding teams that underperform relative to the talent at his disposal. Perhaps the Bruins postseason performance last season will silence some of that criticism. Perhaps not.

Those who defend Coach Salcedo will point to the fact that the Bruins were clearly the better team in the 2014 College Cup Final. However, the fact that the Bruins lost (on penalty kicks) in spite of being the better team doesn't help that line of defense, especially in light of the fact that Virginia's tactics were completely predictable.

From my perspective, the problem with Coach Salcedo's teams has been consistency. Although his teams are undeniably talented, they can look disorganized in defense at times, and they seem to lack tactical awareness at other times. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the relatively high roster turnover rate, but the fact that the "lapses" of Coach Salcedo's teams don't appear to be effectively addressed during the course of a season is troublesome.

I'd like to think that some of the criticism of Coach Salcedo was blunted by the Bruins' strong postseason last year. However, a closer look at UCLA's tournament run isn't reassuring. It began with an unconvincing 2-1 overtime victory over San Diego. That was followed by a 3-2 win against Cal, with the Bruins hanging on at the end after building a 2-0 lead in the first half. Then came the penalty kick victory over North Carolina: UCLA took a 3-1 lead against the 10-man Tar Heels, but then conceded two shorthanded goals in less than thirty seconds late in the second half. After that came a double overtime 3-2 win over Providence, and finally, the scoreless penalty kick loss to Virginia in the College Cup Final. Frankly, the Bruins looked extremely vulnerable in every one of their tournament games.

As much as I like Coach Salcedo and want to see him succeed, I have my doubts about his ability to build a truly dominant program. He's proven that he's an exceptionally good recruiter--2015 marks the third consecutive season in which he's pulled in the nation's top freshman class. Now it's time for him to coach a team to a national championship. If he continues to field teams that produce uneven performances, the criticism of his coaching will only grow fiercer.

Expectations

Although the Bruins have two huge holes to fill with the loss of Leo Stolz and Edward Earl Jr., Coach Salcedo has amassed more than enough talent to replace the departing seniors. This is a team ready to contend now. The national and conference coaches polls support this view.

Because of Coach Salcedo's experience, the return of almost all of his key contributors from last year's team, and his terrific freshman class, I expect the Bruins to claim the Pac-12 title this season. Anything short of that will be a serious disappointment. At a minimum, I expect UCLA to qualify for the NCAA tournament again.

I am cautiously optimistic about our men's soccer program this season. I remain skeptical (but hopeful, of course) about Coach Salcedo's ability to build a truly dominant program in the long term, even though the potential is there.

Go BRUINS!