This was not the way it was supposed to go for the UCLA soccer team. The plan was to return from last year’s national championship season and roll over opponents, as the Bruins had last year when they lost only once.
Winning had become such a habit that when, early this season, the team lost three games, it appeared that many UCLA players had lost their way.
Losing baffled the players.
As sophomore midfielder Joe-Max Moore said: “You don’t come to UCLA and expect to lose.”
Since it began NCAA competition in 1967, the Bruin soccer team has compiled a .789 winning percentage. Although three defeats may not seem alarming, to UCLA it meant the possibility of not making the NCAA playoffs--something no senior in the program ever faced.
The issue was discussed during a team meeting last month in a hotel in San Francisco and resolved the next day with a 5-0 victory over St. Mary’s. The team went into that game 8-3 and finished 17-3.
In part because of that mid-season team meeting, which many players refer to as “the wake-up call,” the Bruins are again in the NCAA playoffs. Eleventh-ranked UCLA will play host to the University of Portland (13-6) in a second-round game today at 1 p.m. at the north soccer field.
What the team’s consciousness-raising revealed was an interesting paradox: The very thing that made the team strong--a corps of talented players--was making the team weak. What they came to realize was that because UCLA’s players are among the best in the country, some were spending their summers playing for the U.S. national team, some were playing in qualifying games with the Olympic team and others played in last summer’s U.S. Olympic Festival.
When those players rejoined the UCLA team--some late--they brought with them their flashy, somewhat selfish style of international soccer.
“We were 11 individuals trying to play a team game,” goalkeeper Brad Friedel said. “It was like, ‘OK, I shut down my man, it’s not my fault they scored.’ Everyone wanted to score, and no one wanted to do the work you have to do in the college game. It’s a team game at this level.”
UCLA Coach Sigi Schmid thought he saw the problems and alerted his team. However, as do children with their parents, the players paid little attention. It was only when they figured it out for themselves that they moved to correct the problems.
“I stayed away (from the meeting) and let an assistant coach go because I knew the players would be more likely to clear the air,” Schmid said. “I also knew they would see it if they heard it from a different voice.”
Schmid had begun the season anticipating problems, but not precisely the ones that developed. He was concerned that the team would be complacent after winning its second national championship in six years.
Schmid also knew, because he coached the team that played in the World University Games, that many of his best players would be mentally fatigued from a soccer schedule that began last fall, ran through the summer and started again this fall with no time off.
“A lot of us came back pretty much burned out,” midfielder Cobi Jones said.
Jones and Moore had played in England at the World University Games and in Cuba in the Pan American Games last summer. Both are key players, and both had adjustments to make getting back in the college game.
Schmid noticed that problems had affected the entire team.
“These guys won the gold medal at the Pan Am Games,” he said. “Now they come back to school and we’re going to practice in the morning and the afternoon, and then there will be fitness training--no one was excited about that.”
Had it not been for the turnaround, the Bruins surely would not be in the playoffs. They say that it took the realization of what they stood to lose to make them work to keep it.
“In that meeting, we talked about not making the playoffs, not being able to defend our title,” Jones said. “I really hadn’t thought about it before then. None of us wanted that to happen.”
The Bruins still have to win two more games before they are in the final four and have a chance to defend their title. But it would appear that they won’t need another meeting to wake them up.