It's a good idea for any kind of team--but especially a soccer team--to start off the season on the right foot. Instead, the UCLA men's soccer team put its foot in it this year, losing three straight matches.
Such a beginning seemed to be a particularly bad omen for Bruin Coach Sigi Schmid. Entering his ninth season at UCLA, Schmid, whose 1985 squad won the NCAA championship, had a career record of 132-25-20, and none of his UCLA teams had ever lost three in a row.
It was not a complete surprise to Schmid that his Bruins had stumbled at the outset. He had lost six starters to graduation from last year's 14-7-1 squad that reached the NCAA quarterfinals. The 1988 Bruins have also been hampered by injuries to key players and by the ineligibility of former national team member Lucas Martin.
Schmid had been counting on Martin to be the glue to hold an inexperienced unit together, but that hope melted away when the sophomore forward from La Jolla was declared ineligible on Sept. 17--just when the Bruins were beginning to turn their season around.
Forced to start as many as five freshmen, Schmid faced the bleak prospect of trying to coach a bunch of strangers instead of a team. It would have been understandable if UCLA had played the rest of the year for the experience rather than for victories.
But UCLA has closed ranks so quickly and come back so strongly that it would also be understandable if Schmid were put in charge of get-acquainted mixers for all new UCLA students. Since the Bruins lost their first three matches, they have won nine of their last 11, with one tie. The strangers have become family.
The Bruins (9-4-1), no longer an also-ran, will play host Saturday and Sunday to San Diego State, ranked fourth nationally; No. 5 South Carolina and Navy in the fourth annual UCLA/Metropolitan Life Pacific tournament. On Saturday, San Diego State and South Carolina will meet at noon, and UCLA and Navy at 2 p.m. On Sunday, the Aztecs will face Navy at noon, and the Bruins will play South Carolina at 2 p.m.
Schmid thinks the turning point of UCLA's season came not with a resounding victory but in the team's fourth loss, to Santa Clara, ranked fourth in the Far West Region last week, ahead of No. 6 UCLA.
He said that Santa Clara may have won the match, 1-0, but "we dominated" the Broncos. "It was encouraging because we showed that the team can play with anyone in the country and we don't have to be afraid of stepping on the field with any team."
Instead of having a team out of the running for postseason play, Schmid feels he has one that can make the NCAA playoffs if it wins three of its last four matches against tough teams: South Carolina this weekend and later against Nevada Las Vegas, Washington and San Diego State. The Bruins enhanced their prospects for a postseason bid when they shut out the Far West's No. 3 team, the University of San Francisco, 1-0, last Sunday.
Schmid said that his team's 0-3 start was not as disastrous as it appeared to be, that the Bruins were only out of one game (a 3-1 loss to Evansville) and that even when the team lost his players did "the things you have to do to get close.
He said that his players have gained "much more confidence because they knew they hadn't played that badly. And when you're starting four or five freshmen, you have to have confidence to do well."
The freshmen who have played a lot include starters Mike Lapper of Huntington Beach Marina High School, Sam George of Santa Ana Mater Dei High and Cobi Jones of Westlake High and reserves Tim Gallegos of Albuquerque, N.M., and Aaron Muth of Mesa, Ariz. Freshman Mike Kafka of West Torrance was starting, but a reoccurrence of an old injury, a broken collar bone, has sidelined him for several weeks.
The newcomers have all had to take a crash course in "Advanced College Soccer," a much more demanding curriculum in the sport than they had in high school. Key elements to getting a passing grade under Schmid include learning to be patient, play at a quicker pace, work harder and refine one's playing skills.
The most important element, Schmid said, is developing the patience "to find the weak link (and) wear down an opponent."
He said that freshmen are "used to having the game structured around them. They have gone from leaders to support players."
Lapper, a defender, has been giving the team good support despite missing the first three weeks of the season because he dislocated his right knee in a preseason practice.
He said that college soccer is much more intense and played at a quicker pace than in high school. "In high school, you're out there having a good time," he said, but in college you feel pressure to win to justify your scholarship and to keep sponsors for the team. Sporting goods and shoe firms are not often found donating equipment to losers.
George, a midfielder, said he was "real nervous and scared in a way" when he found out that he was going to be a starter.
At first, he said, he played it safe, trying not to make mistakes. But as his confidence increased--and his trust in his teammates--he began letting go and playing up to his ability.
College soccer is much quicker than the prep game, George said. "You can be in front of their goal taking a shot, and they'll be in front of your goal in a matter of seconds."
The game is much more intense in college, he said. "In high school, you play for fun and social status. Here, your scholarship is involved, and you want to win for your school. So everyone out there is giving it his best."
Jones, a forward and midfielder, doesn't have a scholarship, although schools such as Santa Clara and Claremont had offered him grants. He said that he decided to pay his own way at UCLA because "I liked the academic reputation as well as the soccer." But he hopes to play his way into a scholarship.
He said he thinks that he and his teammates started to become more confident after a tie with Fresno State on Oct. 2. "The whole team felt we should have won it, and after that the whole team took on a new attitude toward the game."
In the case of some veterans, it may have been a case of reacquiring old attitudes.
Junior forward Bill Thompson, who tied for the team scoring lead last year with the departed Jeff Hooker, has already scored more points than he did all last season. Last year Thompson finished with 7 points and 7 assists (21 points), and so far this season he tops the team with 8 goals and 8 assists (24 points). He has scored six goals in his last five games, and has three game-winning goals.
After a shaky start, junior goalkeeper Anton Nistl has shut out eight of the last 11 Bruin opponents and hasn't given up a goal in his last 404 minutes of play. His goals-against average is a minute 0.81 a game, compared to his 1.24 average last year.
As Lapper put it, "The people on the team have come together and know their roles. Everyone knows what he's expected to do."