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UCLA soccer teams are aiming for national titles

UCLA soccer teams are aiming for national titles
UCLA men's soccer players -- from left, Leo Stolz, Felix Vobejda, Andrew Tusaazemajja, Earl Edwards Jr. and Aaron Simmons -- share a lighter moment at practice. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

To Nick Rimando, the UCLA Hall of Champions is hallowed ground.

The huge room is stacked floor to ceiling with the 111 NCAA championship trophies the school has won, including the 1997 men's soccer title Rimando helped bring home. But for Rimando, who went on to win two Major League Soccer titles and be on a World Cup team after UCLA, the hall isn't a treasure chest as much as it is a place of inspiration for the Bruins' current soccer teams.

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"It lets those players know that it's achievable," he said. "It kind of gives them the extra push. It shows UCLA is a powerhouse."

Yet, for all that powerhouse has achieved — the UCLA men's and women's soccer programs have combined for 59 NCAA tournament invitations, 22 semifinal appearances and five national titles — this fall it has a good chance of doing something that never has been done.

If the top-ranked women, who have lost only once in two seasons, and the men, who spent a month atop the NSCAA Coaches poll this year, run the table in their Division I tournaments, UCLA will become the first school to win men's and women's soccer titles in the same season. And for women's Coach Amanda Cromwell and men's Coach Jorge Salcedo, chasing that goal has become a team effort.

"We bounce things off of each other. We talk about tactics," Cromwell said. "Sometimes, I'll just sit there and watch their training.

"We're trying to do it side by side and see how far we can go."

The UCLA women (18-0-2) get their title chase started Friday when they play host to San Diego (10-7-2) in the first round of the single-elimination, 64-team tournament.

And the UCLA men (10-4-4 and ranked No. 8 with Sunday's regular-season finale with San Diego State still to play) is also expected to open at home when the 48-team playoff pairings are announced next week. The men's tournament is also single elimination.

Cromwell, who played at Virginia and coached at three schools, arrived at UCLA last year with big shoes to fill since the Bruins' last two coaches, B.J. Snow and Jill Ellis, left for the U.S. national program. But it didn't take long for her to outgrow those shoes, winning the school's first women's soccer title in her first season.

Salcedo has been a longtime Bruin, winning a national title at UCLA as a player — his penalty kick as a freshman decided the 1990 NCAA final — and another as an assistant coach sandwiched around a pro career that included a short stay in the Mexican league and 37 games with the Galaxy.

Together, however, the two coaches have meshed.

"We support each other," Salcedo said.

For which Cromwell is grateful.

"I've been on the other side of it where there's not a great relationship with the men's side and it kind of stinks," she said. "You feel like you're butting heads. And that's not fun."

The soccer teams share much more than mutual respect and a practice facility. Players have dated one another, for instance. And on the field they play a similar style.

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"They're knocking around, building out of the back, same thing that we do," Cromwell said. "So we can kind of present it as a [UCLA] brand. We play soccer how it's supposed to be played. And we do it on the men's and women's side."

Although the men's program will be making its 32nd consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, the most recent of its four national championships came 12 years ago, the longest UCLA men's soccer title drought in three decades.

Still Salcedo says this year's team, led by German striker Leo Stolz and goalkeeper Earl Edwards Jr., is better than the ones he played on, when the rosters included future World Cup players Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Joe-Max Moore and Frankie Hejduk.

"The level of player from one to 28, the end of the roster guys, the quality is much better," he said. "It's because there's better competition out there, there's better coaching, there's better leagues."

Cromwell's team, with eight senior starters, may be one of the best in women's college soccer history, having a 40-1-5 record and outscoring opponents, 105-12, the last two seasons. So more often than not, the women find their toughest competition coming from their campus, where the men's team provides inspiration and encouragement.

"You hear [about] the men, like 'oh they won,' " said senior midfielder Sarah Killion, one of four Bruins on the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, soccer's version of football's Heisman Trophy. "Well [then], we've got to bring it. We've got to win too. You definitely feed off it.

"They were No. 1 and we were No. 1. That's so neat. That just says so much about this soccer program."

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