Title Hopes Brewing In Westwood

Aug. 21, 2007

By Josh Herwitt

Ever since Jorge Salcedo stepped on to the campus of UCLA as an 18-year-old freshman, it's been his mission to win a national championship.

That dream came true in his rookie season when he netted the game-winning penalty kick in the 1990 national championship game for the Bruins.

From there, it only got better for the Cerritos, Calif. native, as Salcedo led the Bruins to two other national titles before moving to the sidelines, where he helped guide his alma mater to its fourth national championship in 2002 as an assistant coach.

But that's the last time the Bruins have been able to crown themselves national champs, and for Salcedo, who is now in his fourth year as head coach in Westwood, it's been a waiting game filled with heartbreak and misfortune.

After a regular season marked by injuries and early-season disappointment, the 2006 Pac-10 runner-up Bruins raced through the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed, downing ACC champion Duke, Clemson and Virginia on their way to the College Cup finals in St. Louis.

Away from their sunny Southern California confines, however, the Bruins were ambushed with an arsenal of bad weather as snow disrupted play and--maybe more importantly--UCLA's rhythm.

That could be one explanation for why the Bruins weren't able to capture the national title in 2006, but it could also be attributed to the fact that UC Santa Barbara was just the better team that day.

At least, Eric Avila was better when he chipped a shot past Eric Reed for a goal that would ultimately give the Gauchos their first national championship and just their first win over UCLA since 1982.

'It was just real dissappointing,' recalled sophomore goalkeeper Brian Perk, who competed with the U.S. U20 World Cup team in July and will now take over as UCLA's primary netminder. 'Walking off that ice cold field...we should have showed up and played, and we didn't. Credit to them, but we didn't come out to play.'

Since that cold December afternoon, there's been a sour taste swirling around in the mouths of Salcedo and his players, one that the Bruins hope to wash away when they kick off the 2007 campaign at the adidas/IU Credit Union Classic.

They have to do so without the services of First Team All-American midfielder Sal Zizzo, who last month signed a three-year contract with Hannover 96 of Germany's Bundesliga.

But it's not the first time Salcedo has seen one of his top guns take off for bigger and better things.

'Sal was our most athletic and dynamic player,' he said. 'It's the third year in a row where we've lost our top player going into the season.'

It's been a string of sudden departures over the last three years for Salcedo, who has seen his other top players in Benny Feilhaber and Kamani Hill leave school early to sign professional contracts with European teams.

And that's what's been so frustrating for the fourth-year coach, who understands that while the early departures might hurt the future success that UCLA (14-6-4 overall in 2006) could garner, it also reflects well upon the program.

'It's unfortunately something that we're used to and it's something that we'll have to adjust to,' Salcedo explained. '...When you lose key components to your team it makes it difficult. But it also makes us realize we're doing the right thing here.'

So as Salcedo continues to recruit some of the best players in the country year after year, it's a predicament that he will have to overcome in deciding what's best for his program.

But the former UCLA standout isn't wasting any time with his future recruiting classes. In fact, Salcedo has already made it a point of emphasis during his recruiting visits and meetings for the next two years.

'It's something that I've accounted for in '07 and '08 recruiting class,' he asserted. 'I've tried to bring in a handful of guys over the next two years that I know can help build a program around.'

So while it will take UCLA's offense some time to adjust to the absence of Zizzo, who finished 2006 with 23 points on seven goals and nine assists, the Bruins carry with them enough youth and experience to be considered the No. 1 team in the nation by College Soccer News.

Those sort of expectations lie heavily on the shoulders of David Estrada, who went from lowly walk-on to the nation's Freshman of the Year in just one year in Westwood.

And with as much talent as Salcedo had entering last season, the sophomore forward out of Salinas, Calif. came out of nowhere to pace the Bruins with a team-high 28 points and 12 goals after being inserted into the starting lineup for the last 13 games of the year.

Four of those goals proved to be game-winners against Oregon State, San Diego, Clemson and Virginia, and Salcedo will be counting on Estrada again in 2007 to spark the offense and carry the Bruins through the regular season and into the NCAA tournament.

Now with Perk taking over in net and U.S. U20 World Cup teammate Tony Beltran helping protect him in the midfield, the Bruins are the ones with the depth and experience to return to the College Cup, only this time they hope they'll be leaving with a trophy in their hands.

'It's ours for the taking,' Beltran assured.

Salcedo sure hopes so, too.

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