It took Jorge Salcedo eight years to climb back to the top of college soccer’s highest mountain.
But it took just one afternoon for him and his UCLA team to be knocked off, with Virginia winning last December’s national championship game in the most deflating way possible — on penalty kicks.
Now Salcedo is hoping that experience will fuel another push toward an NCAA title, a journey that will begin in earnest when the Bruins travel to Oregon State for their conference opener in 12 days.
“It was motivation throughout the off-season. It’s been motivation during our preseason,” said Salcedo, who won national championships as a player and assistant coach at UCLA but has come up short in two trips to the title game as a head coach.
“We know what it was like to get there. And we absolutely have a strong desire to get back there. It’s really enjoyable, the run. So you want to have that feeling again.”
That run has gotten off to a slow start with UCLA, which started the season ranked first in the National Soccer Coaches Assn. of America poll but then lost three in a row to fall out of the top 25. The Bruins (2-3-0) ended that skid with a 4-1 win over Cal Poly last Friday, but there remains much work to be done. according to senior midfielder Grady Howe.
“We’re playing with a chip on our shoulder because of what happened last year,” Howe said. “We know that if we reach our full potential, we have the opportunity to do what we did last year.
“It’s just a matter of drawing that out of ourselves and playing with that little chip on our shoulder from righting a wrong last year.”
Motivation isn’t the only thing the Bruins are deep in. They also have a lot of talent, adding 14 freshmen — including what Top Drawer Soccer called the top recruiting class in the country — to a team that includes nine returning starters. However, the two players that moved on left big holes to fill: goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr. gave up less than a goal a game last season, while midfielder Leo Stolz won the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s equivalent of football’s Heisman.
Both are now in Major League Soccer — Stolz with the New York Red Bulls, Edwards with Orlando City — giving the Bruins 18 players on current MLS rosters, more than any other college, according to the soccer website The18.com. UCLA has also sent 27 players to the U.S. men’s national team since 1990, nearly three times as many as any other school.
UCLA has left a less-indelible mark on the College Cup, however, with its 12-year title drought the school’s longest in three decades.
“The goal for any team is to win the national championship and we were a step short last year,” said junior defender Michael Amick, a second-team All-American who is on the preseason Hermann Trophy watch list.
“Obviously to make it to the final is a huge deal,” continued Amick, who scored UCLA’s first goal in the win over Cal Poly. “To have that opportunity to play for a national championship is something that any team in the country would want. At the same time … when you’re that close to getting it all, you just want that little bit more.”
And when you’re that close to getting it all, you no longer sneak up on opponents. Which is why getting back to the final will be more challenging than making it there the first time.
“It’s certainly harder with the expectations,” said Grady, like Amick, a team captain. “We have a target on our back. And every team gives us their best shot.
“Each of these teams we play has the potential to beat us if we’re not ready to go. We’ve experienced that a couple of times. So it’s not about who we play. It’s about recognizing that we have a target on our back and we have to go out and give it our best shot every day.”
Despite the slow start, UCLA can climb back into the thick of the national championship picture by winning the Pac-12 Conference title, which carries with it an automatic berth in November’s 48-team NCAA tournament field. Failing that, the Bruins could earn an at-large invitation if they play well in the six games they have left against teams ranked in the top nine of the NSCAA poll.
Either way, the odds are in UCLA’s favor: In Salcedo’s 11 seasons as coach, the Bruins have never missed the NCAA tournament and have finished outside the top 10 just once in the last five years.
But what they haven’t done under Salcedo is win that final game.
“Personally it’s been a huge motivation to get back and to win it,” said Salcedo who, as a freshman, made the shot that gave UCLA the 1990 championship in a penalty-kick shootout. “For us it’s a process. Every year I have a good feel for where the team is at. This year … I have a really good understanding of the group.
“We can be a better team than we were last year.”
All it will take is one more win.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11