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Published Oct 1, 2008 8:01 AM
No other university in the nation has produced more pro soccer players than UCLA, and few can match its collegiate record, either. It's been six years, though, since the Bruins won their last NCAA title and they're hungry for more. But this season, the challenge is steep: UCLA will face five of the last seven NCAA men's soccer champions.
It's easy to recruit top-caliber athletes when your team's on top.
A much more difficult feat is being able to attract the best athletes in the country, year after year, no matter how well or how poorly your team is doing.
A team like that has a history of winning and a reputation that transcends the occasional mediocre season. A team like that is respected for the excellence of its coaches and its players. A team like that has a sterling image that it works very hard to uphold — and is never far from its next title.
A team like that is the UCLA men's soccer team.
These footballers have won four NCAA national championship titles, the last in 2002. Over the last six years, in fact, the Bruins won the Pac-10 conference four times and made it to the championship match in 2006 before losing to UC Santa Barbara. The 2007 season, however, was considered a disappointment for the No. 1-ranked Bruins. Riddled with injuries, the Bruins made it "only" to the second round of the NCAA tournament before finishing with a 9-9-3 record.
Yet despite all that, UCLA signed yet another stellar freshman class this year — 12 top recruits who are considered among the best in the nation.
If you ask Head Coach Jorge Salcedo '02, himself once a member of the UCLA men's soccer team and a former player in America's pro league, Major League Soccer (MLS), he'll tell you he completely understands UCLA's allure — the renowned academics, the beauty of the campus, the city surroundings, the weather. But he also believes that the coaching staff has a lot to offer to the athletes.
"I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't put a team out there that could compete to win a national championship," Salcedo says. "But I am also a very big believer that college coaches are enablers of young human beings, and that we have a big influence on how they impact society.
"I very much believe in having our guys experience things that they'll be able to take away for the rest of their lives. So we're able to attract players and their families for a variety of reasons, and I think the No. 1 reason is because they believe in what we're doing and what we're going to teach their children."
Goalkeeper Brian Perk and midfielder Kyle Nakazawa, both juniors, appreciate that philosophy, as well as the university's status as a world-class provider of opportunities to hone student-athletes' skills in many different sports.
"UCLA is one of the big powerhouses as far as athletics in this country," Nakazawa says. "They've always had a reputation for producing some of the best players in any sport that they have. Being in that kind of environment, where you're surrounded by good athletes in every sport, is something that draws players."
For example, thanks in part to Salcedo's friendship with Los Angeles Galaxy soccer director Paul Bravo — a former UCLA assistant coach — Perk and Nakazawa have been able to practice with the Galaxy's first team.
Freshman Eder Arreola, a prized recruit from Chino Hills, Calif., had his pick of schools but chose UCLA for its storied soccer history and for its proximity to home. His parents, he says, are happy with his choice.
"My dad gives me a lot of advice," Arreola says. "Now that I'm going to UCLA, he tells me, it's going to be different. It's going to be tough. Just because I'm here already doesn't mean I can relax. I have to keep working hard."
No other school in the nation can touch UCLA in terms of the number of former collegiate soccer stars who go on to professional success, including Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri '03, Jose Lopez '73, Pete Vagenas, Joe-Max Moore, Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Bornstein. With active players on the rosters of Chivas USA, L.A. Galaxy, D.C. United and the Kansas City Wizards, among other teams, UCLA has a league-high 18 former athletes currently on MLS rosters and an overall total of 50 who have played in MLS over the years. Six former Bruins are actively playing on European teams, with an overall total of 20.
Earlier this year, UCLA's Chance Myers and Tony Beltran entered the pro ranks as the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in MLS's SuperDraft. And in August, three former Bruins — Marvell Wynne, Benny Feilhaber and Patrick Ianni — represented the United States on the 2008 Olympic team in Beijing.
One of MLS's most famous faces is Cobi Jones, a walk-on at UCLA in 1988 who went on to great pro success as an MLS pioneer and as a star with the Galaxy. Now an assistant coach for the Galaxy, Jones recalls how UCLA was always his first choice, even though he entered without an athletic scholarship.
"Out of all the schools I had been accepted to, UCLA gave me the opportunity to get a high-level education as well as a high level of soccer," Jones says. "Education was pretty important in my household, with my mom being a teacher and my dad being a Ph.D. in chemistry."
The winningest coach in UCLA soccer history, Sigi Schmid '76, is now head coach of the MLS's Columbus Crew. As the Bruins' head coach for 19 years, from 1980-1998, Schmid led the Bruins to a 322-63-33 record, 16 consecutive postseason appearances and three national titles (1985, 1990 and 1997). Despite the pressures, Schmid remembers it all with extreme fondness.
"I wish Jorge all the success possible. UCLA has a very talented team, and he will know how to get the optimum performance out of them," Schmid says. "UCLA always has a chance to win a national title. That has been in programs past starting with Coach Dennis Storer, and it continues with Coach Salcedo.
"All I can say is, Go Bruins! You have a big fan here in Columbus."