Aug. 17, 2001
As UCLA saw last year, soccer is not a game that can be won on individual talent alone. It is a game that is more likely than not won by a whole, cohesive team.
Which is good news for the 2001 Bruins. Not only are they talented, with several youth national team players on the squad, but they are, most importantly, a solid, team-oriented unit that now knows what it takes to win at the collegiate level. After an up-and-down 2000 season, they return a year later more experienced, more hungry and more committed as they contend once again for the NCAA championship.
"This is more of a team-oriented group of players as opposed to a collection of prolific individuals," said third-year head coach Todd Saldana. "There is an overall feeling of team chemistry, mutual respect and enthusiasm, and that can go a long way."
Sophomores Cliff McKinley and Matt Taylor are expected to fill in the shoes of the graduated McKinley Tennyson Jr. They are big shoes to fill - Tennyson recorded 40 goals in his career, including 15 of UCLA's 40 a year ago.
McKinley is UCLA's top returning scorer, having tallied four goals in 2000 while making eight starts. During the spring season, he led the Bruins in scoring with three goals in seven games, including the game-winner against the U.S. U-20 National Team. The former U.S. U-18 National Team member is an explosive player with great quickness who is lethal in the box. He is also good in the air and has the ability to sense goal-scoring opportunities well.
Taylor also has starting experience, earning seven starts and recording two assists in his rookie campaign. He is known for his phenomenal work rate and good natural instincts in the goal area.
Redshirt junior Tim Pierce made his claim for extensive playing time last year when he started four games and scored one goal. He too found success in the spring, recording two goals and two assists. He is one of UCLA's most improved players and has gained a great deal of confidence in the last year. Pierce, who will also see time in the midfield, has been with the program for four years, and his experience will pay dividends for the Bruins.
Sophomore John Carson stepped up last season as UCLA's spark-plug off the bench, recording one assist in seven games played. His speed, constant activity and one-on-one ability will cause problems for defenders.
Freshmen Phillip Harr and Ahmed Khalil will also contend for playing time at the forward position. Harr, a member of the ODP Regional team and an NSCAA Youth All-Region selection, is a very athletic forward with good size and determination. Khalil is a member of the U.S. U-18 National Team pool and possesses great soccer sense and savvy around the goal area. Khalil is a creative passer, is good in the air and can beat his man on a dribble.
"Our goal scorers are unproven, but we are expecting great variety with them," said Salda?a. "It is a balanced and varied attack. We have overall depth and a balance of athleticism, speed and skill. They may not have extensive experience, but there is no doubt they can cause difficulties for our opposing teams."
Gregorio, who played with the U-17 National Team at the 1999 World Youth Championships, gives the Bruins versatility. The sophomore is a great one-on-one player who has experience playing on the wing and is fully recovered from an ankle injury that shortened his 2000 season. Gregorio, who ranked third on the team with nine points a year ago, is a skillful player and an excellent crosser with good speed and power.
Enfield comes to Westwood as one of the most highly-lauded freshmen in the nation after a successful stint with the U-18 National Team, for which he was the leading scorer. The Parade and NSCAA All-American is a legitimate replacement for last year's playmaker, Shaun Tsakiris. Enfield is a versatile and creative player with great quickness, exceptional skills and a solid work rate.
Expected to play on the left side is sophomore Ty Maurin, who started six of 13 games a year ago and recorded one assist. Maurin's number one asset is his exceptional work rate. He also has good speed and crossing ability and can play at left back as well.
Off the bench, Salda?a can turn to a variety of players, including junior Jimmy Frazelle, who contributed two goals and two assists in 2000 and is a dangerous threat from long-range, senior Brandon Kay, a hard-nosed defensive midfielder whose strengths are tackling and heading, and sophomore Dru Hoshimiya, a transfer from Cal who is not only one of the best ball-handlers on the team but is also good in the air and a strong tackler. All three will provide additional experience in the midfield. Freshmen Ryan Valdez, a solid, consistent player who passes the ball well, and Aaron Lopez, a defensive midfielder who is a good one-on-one defender with great composure and technical skills, will push for playing time as well.
"We have filled the void of playmaking in the middle of the midfield and have now created more options in the wide part of the midfield," said Salda?a. "We are deeper at the defensive midfield position than we have ever been."
The Bruin backline of Alex Yi, Nelson Akwari, Leonard Griffin and Scot Thompson all started 10 or more games last season, with Yi and Akwari starting all 19. All four players also have U.S. National Team experience.
Last season, Yi was named one of five "Players to Watch" by the Missouri Athletic Club and did not disappoint. He was selected as the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and also earned All-Freshman honors from Soccer America. Yi, a 2001 pre-season All-American, is a dynamic defensive presence with great size and good passing skills. There is also no denying his experience, as he and Akwari have played in two World Youth Championships in three years.
Griffin started 10 games in 2000 as a defender and as a midfielder, scoring two goals. He is an attacking-minded back who also has played with the U-20s. Griffin combines athleticism with great skill and has come on strong since the spring season. He has experience playing on the left side of the field.
Thompson missed the final four games of 2000 with a broken foot but is expected to be back at 100% for his junior season. The 1999 UCLA Rookie of the Year is more than capable of providing an offensive spark, having scored a team-best seven career goals. Thompson is a great one-on-one defender and has exceptional speed and athleticism. His ability in the air both offensively and defensively is a huge plus for the Bruins.
Providing depth in the back are redshirt junior Chadd Davis and sophomore Tony Lawson. Davis, who scored two goals last year, has solid overall skills and a good work rate. He is expected to play an attacking outside defender role. Lawson also has good offensive and defensive instincts, along with great speed, athleticism and consistency. Last season, he made seven starts and tallied two assists.
"We have a deep, experienced defensive line that combines solid defensive abilities with attacking capabilities," said Salda?a. "The biggest factor will be cohesion and experience playing together, as well as an understanding of each other."
On paper, it would appear as if goalkeeping was UCLA's biggest concern. After all, UCLA lost starting keeper DJ Countess to Major League Soccer just before fall practice. However, the Bruins have a more than capable replacement in redshirt sophomore Zach Wells.
"Zach is a great physical presence," noted Salda?a. "He's good on cross balls, controls his box well and has good leadership qualities. The team is very comfortable and confident with him in goal."
Senior Stephen Gardner moves up to No. 2 goalkeeper. Gardner has been with the team for four years and could see his first action in 2001. Gardner is one of the most improved players on the team and is fearless between the pipes. Off the field, he is a great example as a student-athlete, making the director's honor roll every quarter he has been in school.
The Bruins start the season with a bang, facing ACC stalwarts Maryland and Virginia in successive games at the Virginia Soccer Classic. Two big Northern California rivals in San Francisco and Santa Clara await the following week at the USF Diadora Classic. The Bruins also have a non-conference matchups against former conference rival Cal State Fullerton and a much-anticipated rematch with San Diego, which knocked UCLA out of the NCAA Tournament last year.
In its second year in the Pacific-10 Conference, UCLA will face NCAA participants Washington and Stanford twice, along with California and Oregon State.
The Pacific Soccer Classic returns to the UCLA campus in late October, as the Bruins host St. Mary's and perennial power South Carolina.
"Our schedule is one of the strongest we have ever had," said Salda?a. "With the Pac-10 Conference emerging as one of the top conferences in the country, playing each team twice will no doubt help prepare us for the post-season. We also have games away from home against Maryland and Virginia to start the season. We are playing nationally-recognized programs, top regional opponents and, of course, the conference teams, which have all improved and are even tougher this year."