Los Angeles Soccer: Kirk Urso
UCLA had the talent, the game and the belief -- and was playing in star forward Chandler Hoffman's hometown -- and thought that would be enough to bring home a fifth NCAA men's soccer championship trophy.
So when the Bruins (18-4-2) looked for whatever pluses they might find after watching top-seeded North Carolina (20-2-3) overcome two deficits en route to a victory on penalty kicks in Friday night's College Cup semifinals, they focused on what they brought -- and what it meant in a sizzling encounter.
“It was probably a great soccer game to watch from a fan's perspective, and it was very emotional and a lot of ups and downs for us and for me as a coach,” UCLA boss Jorge Salcedo said after his team was outtallied, 3-1, in the shootout following a 2-2 draw. “That was two good teams out there. They had momentum, we had momentum. They had good players, we had good players.
“When I watched that first semifinal” -- Charlotte's penalty-kicks triumph over Creighton following, it should be noted, a rather poor game -- “I thought to myself, 'At least put on a performance that's worthy of a national semifinal.' And I felt like we did. ... It was a good game and a great advertisement for college soccer.”
That doesn't make it any easier to lose, especially when everything seemed to line up so perfectly. Salcedo had tweaked the way his Bruins play the game, installing a fluid, inspiring possession game. UCLA had senior leadership -- a rarity with so many top players leaving early for the pros -- and immense skill, especially among the juniors and sophomores. The previous eight opponents hadn't found the net, tying a school record.
The Bruins had never gone so long -- nine years -- between NCAA soccer titles.
“I thought from the spectators' point of view, tonight was obviously a great game. A lot of great players out there tonight,” assessed Hoffman, the Bruins' top scorer with 18 goals, who played in front of a large group of family and friends. “That does not [make losing easier] at all.”
UCLA stood five minutes from a chance to play for another NCAA soccer championship. Turns out their destiny led somewhere else.
The Bruins on Friday night twice watched leads slip away in the second half, lost their homecoming hero to heavy cramps, then came up wanting at the finish, falling to top-seeded North Carolina on penalties following a 2-2 draw in a Division I men's semifinal in Hoover, Ala., outside Birmingham.
The third-ranked Tar Heels (20-2-3), making their fourth successive College Cup final-four appearance, advance to Sunday's title game against Charlotte (16-4-4), which beat No. 2 Creighton on penalties in the first semifinal.
It was a devastating end for fourth-ranked (but 13th-seeded) UCLA (18-4-2), which dominated stretches of the match with a possession game that wearied North Carolina, went ahead on superb goals by Ryan Hollingshead in the 17th minute and Kelyn Rowe in the 74th, then conceded a late equalizer to All-American Billy Schuler.
“It was so close tonight, it could have gone either way,” UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo told ESPN Los Angeles after the game. “To win win a game, you need to have a little bit luck, a little bit skill. We had skill but no luck tonight.”
It was a marvelous encounter, full of incident, featuring great drama, massive momentum swings, great individual performances on both sides, some beautiful soccer -- especially by UCLA the latter part of the first half -- and four stunning goals.
All-American striker Chandler Hoffman, a Birmingham boy playing before family and friends, assisted both UCLA strikes but wasn't in position to score himself, thanks to expert work by North Carolina All-American Matt Hedges.
His departure with a hamstring injury in overtime -- “I was cramping like I've never cramped before,” he reported -- deprived the Bruins of their best finisher in the closing minutes and in the penalty-kick shootout, when they really missed him.
North Carolina won the tiebreaker, 3-1, with three of the Bruins' four shots taken poorly. Andy Rose and Rowe didn't get the ball close enough to the posts on the first two rounds, leaving simple stops for goalkeeper Scott Goodwin. Victor Munoz went up the middle to score on the third round, but Fernando Monge fired well wide left with the fourth shot, and Ben Speas -- an NCAA champion last year at Akron -- followed with the decisive kick.
“Unfortunately, when you miss the first one, it doesn't set a good tone,” Salcedo said. “But we didn't lose because we took poor penalty kicks. It's not one player, not one call, not one penalty kick in soccer that decides whether you win or lose. It's just the overall game.”
The NCAA College Cup kicks off Friday afternoon in Hoover, Ala., with No. 2 Creighton taking on surprise semifinalist Creighton in the 3 p.m. PST opener. No. 4 UCLA meets No. 3 North Carolina in the second game, at 5:30 p.m.
The title game is Sunday at 1 p.m. All three games will be shown live on ESPNU.
Here's a quick rundown on the final four:
- UCLA (18-4-1)
The Bruins lost in the quarterfinals the past two years, but a shift to a pure possession attack -- with style as or more important than results -- has taken UCLA to a different level. Junior forward Chandler Hoffman gets to finish a spectacular campaign, in which he's netted 18 goals to head a dynamic attack, at home: He's from Birmingham.
Pacific 12 MVP Kelyn Rowe adds attacking dimensions off the bench and Englishman Andy Rose provides a midfield foundation around which the Bruins revolve. And they might be at their strongest at the back, where goalkeeper Brian Rowe has posted eight straight shutouts -- keeping his sheet clean for 747 minutes, 40 seconds.
- NORTH CAROLINA (20-2-2)
The Tar Heels reached the title game three years ago and lost in the semifinals the past two years, and now first-year coach Carlos Samoano -- promoted when Elmar Bolowich moved to Creighton -- looks to take them to a second title 11 years after the first. They bring in a nine-game winning streak, with six of the victories, including the last two, by shutout.