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Aug 11, 2006

Now or never for the Bruins

I'm not a math person, but most of the time even I can do basic addition. That's why I'm having trouble figuring out how this adds up:

Since winning the national championship in 2002, UCLA's recruiting class has been ranked No. 1 in the nation three of the last four years -- in 2003, 2004 and 2006 -- by College Soccer News. In 2005, they were ranked fifth, still not bad.

How is it then that the Bruins are ranked eighth in the preseason rankings?

That's right -- they're behind reigning champ Maryland (OK, no big surprise there), Southern Methodist, North Carolina, Connecticut, Penn State, Virginia and Akron. Come on, when you're ranked lower than the Zips, that's not too promising.

Of course, after three No. 1 recruiting finishes but no Final Four appearances in those four years, even the Bruins' own coach isn't putting much stock in recruiting rankings.

"Ummm, I guess, it's a little bit of recognition," Jorge Salcedo said. From the tone of his voice, one could picture him squeezing his thumb and index finger so close together that they almost touch. Even he admits it's "not really a big deal."

However, it's still the preseason and prognosticators like myself need something to write about, so I'll just run with it.

UCLA's getting all the top recruits.

That's believable enough. After all, the Bruins scored big with forward Chad Barrett and midfielder Benny Feilhaber in 2003. Barrett went on to be Pac-10 Co-Freshman of the Year and a year later was the third overall pick in the MLS draft. Feilhaber is off playing in Europe somewhere (Hamburg, for those of you who really care, but, if you really cared, you probably already knew that). Of course, those guys were easy to recruit coming off a championship year.

In 2004, the Bruins brought in the nation's top forward recruit Kamani Hill and defender Marvell Wynne. Two more big scores (and one big scorer) for UCLA.

This year, the biggest name coming in is midfielder Kyle Nakazawa. He's local, starts for the U-17 U.S. national team and has been training with the residency program in Florida since 2003. He's not college proven, per se, but my money's on the kid probably being pretty good.

What's the big draw to Westwood?

First, there's a winning tradition. OK, I mean, if you like Pac-10 championships.

Then, there's the Bruins' track record of developing successful players. After all, Wynne was the top pick in this year's MLS draft. So I'll buy that.

I'm sure academics are in there somewhere.

"And lastly, but lastly only in a numerical aspect, is the environment, the daily environment," Salcedo said.

Having grown up in Southern California but now living in the Midwest, I totally can see that. Who doesn't love 70-degree winters?

But it turned out what Salcedo meant by "environment" had little to do with being able to wear sandals in January. It was actually something about being around "26 very, very good soccer players day in and day out."

Oh, right ... I suppose that might factor in somewhere, as well.

So with these "26 very, very good soccer players" -- that's two "very's" -- why aren't the Bruins considered "very, very good?" Or maybe they are, and it's just that Maryland is considered "very, very, very, very good."

Whatever it is, Salcedo knows UCLA's postseason accomplishments over the last few years haven't been good enough, given its potential. Consider last season: Heading into the NCAA tournament, the sixth-ranked Bruins hadn't given up a goal at home. That streak ended 13 minutes into the postseason. Then UCLA gave up another, and another. By the time it was over, the team was bounced from the tournament with a 3-0 loss to SMU.

The Bruins did win their fourth straight Pac-10 title in 2005, but administration and alumni -- that is, the people who give money -- "would like to see more than just the Pac-10," as Salcedo put it.

I could have told you that.

Salcedo's plan for this season, and it's a revolutionary one, is to get back to the Final Four and win a championship. Coaches everywhere are furiously scribbling down this strategy.

Rumor has it, however, that a number of teams may have similar game plans.

Word is that Maryland, a team that's made four straight Final Four appearances, plans to defend its title. North Carolina returns all but one starter and is planning to win, too. Supposedly, even No. 28 Wisconsin-Milwaukee has been thinking of giving "winning it all" a try.

But then again, it's not about how good a team is in mid-September. It's about how -- or if -- it's playing in mid-November. And, UCLA seems to be backsliding when it comes to that: a quarterfinals berth in 2003 followed by a third-round knockout in 2004 and then getting bounced in the second round last year.

How far UCLA goes this year could be evident relatively early. Within the first two weeks of the season, the Bruins play No. 1 Maryland, No. 6 Virginia and No. 9 New Mexico. If UCLA can win them all then maybe this really a team that has a chance to contend for another national championship.

"Every year at UCLA, we have an opportunity to have a successful season," Salcedo said. "This is another year in which we should have success."

Oh wait, sorry that was from 2004, but he said pretty much the same thing heading into this season.

Why then haven't they had that success? When you rule at recruiting, you're expected, at least eventually, to be great. However, the Bruins have lost as many key players to early defection to the professional ranks as they have to graduation. In other words, a lot of good these great recruits are going to do this season.

"When push comes to shove and there's a nice offer for (players) the feeling of becoming a pro may be too difficult to pass up," Salcedo said.

Not that you can blame them. Let's see: midterms or money? I managed to make up my mind in about two and a half seconds on that one.

The difference this time around, according to Salcedo, is that the guys he's got now are planning to stay -- or at least they say they are.

Still, what about the other eight or so guys who come in every year? The team still has All-Pac 10 goalkeeper Eric Reed, 2005 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Sal Zizzo and St. John's transfer Tony Beltran on top of a number of former high school All-Americans. Don't they have what it takes to make this team successful?

Salcedo hopes so, especially with Hill taking a quarter off for "personal reasons," which means he won't be on the field either.

With little to counter offer when it comes to cash -- pesky NCAA rules prohibit paying players -- Salcedo is banking on the "if we have success as a team, hopefully that makes them want to stay longer" approach.

If that doesn't happen and UCLA doesn't start producing better tournament results, the coaching staff might have give up on success as a recruiting tool and resort to promoting the "environment." You know, palm trees, beaches and all that.

I can hear it now. "OK, so Connecticut's ranked higher, but have you been to Storrs in February?"

After all, 2002 was a while ago. The longer UCLA fails to maximize its highly-touted recruiting classes, the more likely its chances of attracting "very, very good" recruits could decrease.

It doesn't take a math expert to see that if the Bruins continue down this road, the odds of winning another national title aren't very good.

Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN). She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com