Welcome to Bruins Nation’s 2019 UCLA Bruin Men’s Soccer season preview. UCLA gets a fresh start this year with new Head Coach Ryan Jorden, who takes over from departed Jorge Salcedo. I am not going to dredge up Salcedo and his issues at this point. I want to be positive looking forward. BN did a spotlight on the new head coach earlier this week. If you want you know more about him, check it out.
Last season, UCLA went 10-9, barely making the postseason, but bowed out in the first round at Portland, by the score of 1-0. Obviously, under new leadership and considering the talent that the Bruins always have, fans are expecting more this season.
But will they get more? That is tough to say. UCLA is unranked in the United Soccer Coach Top 25 poll going into the season, only receiving six votes. That puts the Bruins at #40, lower than the Pacific team from which the Bruins extracted their new head coach! Do the pundits think that UCLA will need a rebuilding year with new players under a new coach? It is not unreasonable to think that.
The reason behind the skepticism is probably attributable to the loss of UCLA’s 2018 scoring punch
UCLA loses a lot up front and in the midfield with the departure of guys like Mohammed Kamara, Frankie Amaya (the #1 overall pick in the 2019 MLS Draft, now plying his trade for FC Cinncinati), Matt Hundley (owned by the Colorado Rapids of MLS, but out on loan to the USL’s Colorado Springs Switchbacks) and Anderson Asiedu. Those three were responsible for 13 goals and 16 assists last year. In fact, seven of UCLA’s top nine scorers (the other two being the Iloski brothers, who return for their junior season) have departed. The Bruins will hope that they can replace that scoring punch in 2019, but it may be a challenge. Where will the goals come from?
UCLA also lost Erik Holt, who was a senior defender last season and a fixture on the back line for UCLA during all four years of his UCLA career, to graduation. Finally, midfielder Brandon Terwege, who started every game last season as a sophomore defender and played extensively in his freshman year, has left the program, transferring closer to home at SMU.
Those are six guys, four offensive players and two defenders, who were very, very important pieces of UCLA’s squad in 2018.
The Iloski brothers (one a junior forward and the other a junior midfielder), defender Matt Powell, and sophomore goalkeeper Justin Garces will headline the group of players returning in 2019. Let’s take a look at the expected players at each position group, starting with the back and moving forward.
This appears to be Garces’ job. There are no two ways about it. Garces played well as a true freshman in 14 games last year and the highly touted Atlanta United product had four clean sheets and made 34 saves. Garces’ goals against average was 1.24, and he had a record of 7-7. Justin will hope to improve on those last two statistics this season. He can be a big part of UCLA’s success if he can be stout between the posts.
Redshirt senior Matthew Powell, who has played extensively in each of his three eligible years at UCLA, returns to anchor UCLA’s back line. Powell has started 53 of UCLA’s 57 games in the last three years and should provide senior leadership and experience at team captain.
Senior defender Alex Knox, who has been with the program for two seasons after transferring from Wake Forest, also figures to get a lot of time in defense. Knox started 11 games last year, appearing in 16 and recording two goals and two assists.
Sophomore A. J. Vasquez started 17 of UCLA’s 19 games last year and figures to continue to get those starts. Vasquez can play either left back or right back, and did both in UCLA’s three-back system in 2018.
Redshirt sophomore Eirik Baekkelund from Norway missed all last season due to injury, although he appeared in 17 games in 2018. Baekkelund could see time as UCLA’s fourth defender in the event that Coach Jorden plays a four-man back line.
Freshmen Eric Pierce and Constantinos Michaelides and junior transfers Ben Reveno from UC Irvine and Ruben Soria from Santa Monica College could also see time on the Bruins’ back line.
Junior midfielder Eric Iloski should anchor the UCLA midfield. Eric played in 34 games in the Bruins’ last two seasons, netting a goal and four assists. His play in the middle of the pitch will be critical to UCLA’s success this season.
Iloski will be joined in the midfield by a junior transfer from Pitt, Marcony Pimentel, who scored a goal in UCLA’s exhibition win versus Westmont on Tuesday night. Pimentel scored three goals and recorded three assists in 25 games with the Panthers.
Another transfer, Jose Sosa, came to Westwood along with the new head coach. Yes, Sosa played for Jorden at Pacific last year as a freshman, appearing in 19 games and starting eight. He knows how Coach Jorden wants to play and, as such, figures to get playing time in a Bruin jersey in 2019.
Senior Martin Roman could also get some starts at midfield. He played in 14 games, all off the bench, for the Bruins in 2019 as could Andrew Paoli, who played in five games last season for UCLA, starting two.
Junior forward Milan Iloski has six goals and four assists in his two seasons at UCLA. With much of the 2018 attacking talent gone, all eyes will be on Iloski to step up his game to a higher level. Like I said for his brother, Eric, Milan Iloski will need to up his game for UCLA to have a successful season in 2019.
Freshman forward Jefferson Alade, who is from Alberta, Canada and a Vancouver Whitecaps product, looks to get time up front for the Bruins. Alade chipped in a late goal for UCLA in this past Tuesday’s exhibition game against Westmont.
Another attacking option is redshirt senior Blayne Martinez, who has scored five goals and notched three assists in his three seasons with the Bruins.
Not only is Salcedo gone. There has been a lot of turnover in the UCLA program, including much of its scoring punch and back line. This will be a vastly different team than the one that we saw in 2018, coach-wise and personnel-wise.
And that is a good thing. UCLA has talent. The question is how long will it take for the talent to gel under the Bruins’ new head coach and a new system?
At the absolutely bare minimum, Bruin fans expect the team to make the postseason every year and “make some noise.” Given the program’s pedigree, this minimum expectation is not unreasonable. Can UCLA challenge for the Pac-12 title? Can UCLA make it to the postseason and win a couple games? Maybe exceed expectations for a change? This is the challenge facing UCLA and new head coach Ryan Jorden in 2019.