1. Just like last year, 2016 was a rollercoaster season for UCLA Men's Soccer. What do you see as the season's high and low points?
orlandobruin: The high point of the season was beating Akron, 6-1, at Drake Stadium on Labor Day. Akron actually has a pretty good soccer history in recent years, winning the NCAA title in 2010 and losing in the final the year before. The Zips have made the NCAA tournament every year since 2006, so this was a dominating win over a solid opponent. There were several low points, but I think getting blown out at home by Washington, 4-0, takes the cake for me. UCLA let in two goals in the first three minutes on set pieces and could not make a comeback, despite playing a man up for most of the match. Indeed, the Huskies actually extended their lead over the Bruins with a man down.
Joe Piechowski: I’ve got to agree that the beatdown the team put on Akron was probably the high point, which means that the team probably peaked too early. The low point in my book was probably the four-game conference losing streak that started on October 16th at Stanford and included the home games against Cal and Stanford and the road game against Washington. That was a pretty rough stretch on the schedule.
Bruinette88: There were very few highs in 2016. The big win over Akron was definitely the high point, but that was just the fourth game of the season. The Bruins failed to win a game by more than one goal against a quality opponent after that. The lowest of the low points was the Bruins’ loss to a poor Cal Poly team. Although the Bruins conceded just one goal, it was an early goal, establishing a worrisome pattern that would continue throughout the season. The loss snapped an all too rare UCLA three game winning streak, and set the stage for UCLA’s humiliating loss to Washington six days later.
2. I suspect we all agree that this year's team is less than the sum of its parts. What went wrong this season?
orlandobruin: UCLA’s poor play against set pieces was glaring. UCLA’s penchant for falling behind early was also a huge problem as teams would "park the bus" (the game at Cal Poly is an excellent example) and challenge UCLA to try to break through. UCLA’s ability to out possess teams but inability to translate possession into goals was extremely frustrating. Frankly, all of these are coaching issues as UCLA has some of the top talent in the country.
Joe Piechowski: The team never really seemed to get it all together and, overall, the men’s soccer season felt a lot like a UCLA football season where there’s a lot of disappointment due to an overall lack of performance on the field. Considering the talent level on this team, it would appear that it’s likely due more to coaching issues than anything else.
Bruinette88: UCLA’s problems start and end with coaching. As orlando notes, the Bruins’ problems in defending set pieces was never resolved. The same is true of UCLA’s proclivity for conceding early goals. In my opinion, Coach Salcedo rarely set up the team in a tactically astute way, and I never got the sense that Coach Salcedo and his staff were addressing the problems that recurred week after week.
3. In your opinion, who was the Bruins' MVP this year?
orlandobruin: I am going with Brian Iloski. After missing almost all of last season with injury, Iloski came back in his junior campaign to score five goals and notch seven assists, leading the team in points. Plus he has an epic (awful?) soccer mullet.
Joe Piechowski: I think it was Abu Danladi, even if he only played in nine games due to injury. He seemed to be the guy that would score when the team needed it most.
Bruinette88: Jose Hernandez. Hernandez was named co-Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2016 for his effort which included five goals and six assists.
4. What grade would you assign to Coach Salcedo for the 2016 season?
orlandobruin: D minus. Had the Bruins not made the postseason, it would have been an F. I am concerned for next year’s team, as I anticipate that one or more of UCLA’s underclassmen will forego remaining eligibility and move on to MLS or other leagues.
melissacastro: Same as orlandobruin: a D minus. I didn’t follow the men’s side very closely so maybe I am being too harsh, but from what I did follow I did not like at all. For a time I thought there was a possibility they were not going to be moving on to the postseason. Yes, it’s up to the players on the field to get the job done, but only so much can be done. It’s up to the coach to come up with a great gameplan and help push the team in the right direction. If you don’t have a great coach, not a lot can get done.
Joe Piechowski: Considering that talent that was on this year’s team, I’m going to give him an F. This team had one of the top recruiting classes in the country and, yet, the best it could do was a second round NCAA exit. The idea is to do more with less talent, rather than less with more talent.
Bruinette88: Sadly, I have to give Coach Salcedo an F. I awarded him a D last season for taking a team that was ranked first in the preseason and finishing 23rd in the final NSCAA poll. This year the team began the season at #16 and finished outside the top-25. After two straight seasons of underperformance, I can’t justify giving Coach Salcedo anything but a failing grade, especially since so many of the team’s problems--this year and last year--are coaching issues.
Let’s not forget that Coach Salcedo’s teams have largely underperformed over the course of his coaching tenure at UCLA. Even when UCLA reached the national championship game in 2014, the Bruins lost to a team with inferior talent but superior tactics. Unfortunately, Coach Salcedo has to go, but with Dan Guerrero in charge, it’s highly unlikely that a change will be made anytime soon. After all, in Dan Guerrero’s athletic department, good is good enough.
1. How much did Darian Jenkins' season-ending injury impact the Bruins' season?
orlandobruin: A lot. Not only did the Bruins lose their top goal scorer (at the time--Jessie Fleming ultimately led the team), but they also missed Jenkins’ senior leadership on the field, which is so important. Jenkins went down in the 73rd minute of the Oregon game. UCLA was up 2-1 at the time, and ended up winning 3-2, resulting in the Bruins’ sixth straight win. With the Oregon win, UCLA was 9-2, scoring 20 goals in eleven games. After that, the Bruins went 4-3-1 in the regular season, scoring only 11 goals in those eight games.
melissacastro: So, so much. The time after her injury was rough for them. Losing your top goal scorer is hard to come back from. It took Cromwell some tinkering in the lineup until she found something that worked. They went into four straight OT periods that could have been five if not for the goal by Miranda. Then they were shut out for the next two games and didn’t pick up momentum until the USC game where they won. By that time they made it into the playoffs, it was too late.
Joe Piechowski: Her injury hurt the team a lot. As orlando notes, the team’s goal production dropped off a lot in the last eight games of the regular season. After she went down against Oregon, the team ended up playing four straight overtime games. I’m willing to guess that at least two of those end in regulation if Jenkins was healthy and, perhaps, the game against WVU in the tournament might not have gone to penalty kicks.
Bruinette88: Not as much as you might think. Only two of Jenkins’ seven goals came against teams that made the NCAA Tournament (Pepperdine and Long Beach State); she was scoreless against the best of UCLA’s nonconference opponents (North Carolina, Florida, Penn State, & Texas A&M).
That’s not to minimize the impact of the loss of Jenkins. Had she not been injured, the Bruins might well have defeated Cal or earned a draw against Colorado, and those results likely would have produced a more favorable position for UCLA in the postseason. Prior to Jenkins’ injury, I projected the Bruins losing in the Round of 8. After her injury, I felt that the Bruins were unlikely to advance beyond the Round of 16. And even if Jenkins had miraculously recovered from her injury in time for the game against WVU, I don’t believe she would have been the difference between a win and a loss.
2. How highly do you rate Jessie Fleming?
orlandobruin: I rate her very high. What’s not to like? She played in the 2015 Women’s World Cup for Canada before her senior year in high school, helped win a bronze medal in Rio for her country last summer, and scored 11 goals and records five assists in 19 games for the Bruins this season. She has excellent one-on-one skills and a nose for the net.
melissacastro: On a scale from 1-10, I would say 11. She commands the midfield, plays defense when needed, and she scores too. Now that’s a player you want on your team. Not only is she the future of Canada, but also UCLA. Her first game in and her hew first couple of touches she made the opposing defense look silly. She also netted a brace in her debut. The hashtag the school uses, #BruinGrit, fits her to a tee.
Joe Piechowski: Would calling her the Lonzo Ball of Women’s Soccer be doing her justice? That’s the kind of effect she had on this team. She’s a goal scoring machine and I’d hate to see what would have happened to the team after Darian Jenkins’ injury if Fleming wasn’t around.
Bruinette88: UCLA was trailing Florida and being overrun in midfield in an early season contest. Then Jessie Fleming entered the game in her debut appearance for the Bruins, and the complexion of the match changed. Fleming’s class was evident immediately:
And she notched two goals in the second half to take the game into overtime. Fleming isn’t just the Bruins’ best player. In my opinion, she’s the Pac-12’s best player. No disrespect to Colorado’s Taylor Kornieck, but Fleming should have been selected as the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year.
3. How good do you expect the Bruins to be in 2017?
orlandobruin: UCLA is going to be loaded. In addition to the talent already here, UCLA gets Mallory Pugh (who already has 17 caps and 4 goals for the USWNT) and Ashley Sanchez (who, like Pugh, is currently playing for the US in the u20 Women’s World Cup). Pugh and Sanchez massive threats on offense. UCLA also gets help on the backline, as Karina Rodriguez will join the Bruins. Rodriguez is arguably the top defender in the 2017 class. Goalkeeper, Teagan Micah, who has a very good freshman campaign, will be a sophomore. The Bruins will lose some very good seniors, including Annie Alvarado, Courtney Proctor, Gabby Miranda, Lauren Kaskie, and Amber Munerlyn, but the biggest loss is Darian Jenkins and the Bruins have already adjusted to life without her. I am hoping for a Women’s College Cup appearance in Orlando for 2017!
melissacastro: They are going to have a lot of pressure on them next season. Mallory Pugh, Ashley Sanchez, Marley Canales, Karina Rodriguez and those are just a few names coming in next season. Their offense is obviously going to be top notch, but it’s their defense that scares me. Teagan Micah can make saves, she did it a lot throughout the season. Honestly, she saved them a lot of the time. Having Karina Rodriguez come into the backline is going to help, but they’re really going to have to step up their defense even more if they want a serious chance at the conference title and the NCAA one as well. With the roster they have so far, they should have a great 2017 season. I hope to see them in Orlando as well.
Joe Piechowski: With Mal Pugh and the rest of the next class coming, the expectations for 2017 should by sky-high. The talent on the team will be incredible. Almost anything but a Women’s College Cup appearance would be a disappointment.
Bruinette88: I’m not prepared to count on Mallory Pugh playing for the Bruins in 2017 until I see her on the pitch. That said, there’s a lot of talent in the incoming class, including natural replacements for the best of the departing seniors (Annie Alvarado and Darian Jenkins). UCLA’s defensive group remains largely intact for the first time in the last couple of years, and first choice goalkeeper Teagan Micah will be back to lead the unit. I agree that expectations will be high, and I believe that a College Cup appearance in 2017 is entirely realistic.
4. What grade would you assign to Coach Cromwell for the 2016 season?
orlandobruin: I am going to give out two grades. First, with respect to recruiting, Coach Cromwell gets an A plus. As for her coaching during the 2016 season, Coach Cromwell gets a solid B plus from me. After not making the postseason last year, Coach Cromwell led UCLA to a 15-5-2 record and took the team to the Sweet Sixteen, losing to #1 West Virginia in West Virginia on penalty kicks in the snow. There is no shame in that and, now, UWV is headed to the Women’s College Cup. Also in the Women’s College Cup are Southern Cal (whom UCLA beat) and North Carolina (to whom UCLA lost).
melissacastro: Overall, I would give Cromwell a B plus. Before the Jenkins injury, I would say an A, but alas the injury happened. Even though she stumbled to try and find pieces that would work well, she did it. And to me, that’s a sign of a great coach. Although when they went to penalties against UWV and she switched the goalkeepers, that I still don’t understand. Micah made crucial saves all season I would say she would do well in penalties. But alas switching goalkeepers happened and the season is over. After not making the playoff last season to making the round of 16 this one, is another point in my book for her. Cromwell did well to manage the team after the mid-season stumble and I can’t wait to see how she handles 2017.
Joe Piechowski: Coach Cromwell earns a B-plus from me as well. At the start of the season, before the Jenkins’ injury, I didn’t think the team had enough talent quite yet to win it all, but she held them together after a significant injury and got them to the third round of this year’s tournament. At the same time, it’s going to be a lot tougher to earn a similar grade next year because of the talent level coming in.
Bruinette88: Coach Cromwell deserves an A-. There are still problems at the back, but I saw significant improvement as the season progressed. I have a lot of respect for the way Coach Cromwell manages her squad, too; she takes a long-sighted approach when it comes to allotting playing time. She is a rare example of an excellent hire during the Guerrero-era that involved a genuine nationwide search. I’m a big fan, and I expect long term success of the program with Coach Cromwell at the helm.