UCLA seeks NCAA men's soccer championship

UCLA faces Virginia in semifinals Friday in North Carolina

A season ago, the UCLA men's soccer team was the Pac-12 champion, the top seed in the NCAA tournament and, it hoped, headed for the College Cup and a fifth national championship.

But then came a third-round loss to Connecticut, and with it, a question. What went wrong?

"We knew it wasn't good enough," UCLA Coach Jorge Salcedo said. "As a staff, as a program, we realized that we needed to make some changes, and we did throughout the whole off-season."

The plan has led the Bruins to this point, two wins from a national championship, with a semifinal game against Providence on Friday in Cary, N.C. To get there, UCLA (13-4-5) needed a dramatic win over North Carolina that included a comeback, a two-goal lead blown late and penalty kicks.

But before that, UCLA laid the groundwork by giving itself a tough evaluation. What, Salcedo and his team asked, could they do better?

They started with a leadership retreat in Palm Desert in the off-season. Salcedo brought along a mixture of captains and other players. They talked "about how we could get more out of a program that has a pedigree and a strong history," goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. said. They thought they weren't yet meeting their potential.

Salcedo also began regular team reviews. The team compared its performance to other championship teams. The goal wasn't just to win, but to play at a championship level.

"Pretty much after every game we talk about if our team achieved the goals that we set," midfielder Leo Stolz said.

After Edwards clinched the win over North Carolina with a penalty-kick save, the team rushed the goalkeeper and the fans rushed the field.

It was, Salcedo said at the time, "a fantastic night."

But since the disappointment of last season, the goal has always been a championship.

"This can obviously be the perfect ending to what we put in place several months ago," Salcedo said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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