High-powered Bruins face miserly UCSB defense
In what so far has been an unconventional men's NCAA Tournament, perhaps it is only fitting that the teams contesting Sunday's College Cup championship will reprise a regional rivalry.
Both sides overcame temperatures hovering around freezing to dispatch a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference powers in the semifinals. The Bruins -- in a mild upset -- throttled No .4 seed Virginia, while the unheralded Gauchos sprung a much larger surprise, toppling No. 2 seed Wake Forest on penalties.
"I think it's great, and it's a great testament to the West Coast that we're playing a team [that is located] one hour and 15 minutes south of us," UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg said. "We're going to show up tomorrow. We've got no problem playing UCLA anywhere."
That means a rematch between the two college soccer teams that have grown more than any others over the course of the season. When UCLA defeated UCSB 3-1 in Santa Barbara on Oct. 5, Bruins freshman walk-on David Estrada had scored one goal all year, and the Gauchos were in the midst of losing four out of six, a run that would see them dropped out of the national rankings.
How times have changed.
Estrada scored in that match, and followed with 11 tallies in UCLA's last 12 games, making him the hottest forward in the country. His 12 goals lead the Bruins.
"He puts the finishing touch on what we do; he's kind of the exclamation point on how we play," UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said. "He's the one who gives some credence to our possession."
Anyone who watched him humble Virginia with two stunning moments of exquisite skill, including his turn through two defenders to set himself up for the second goal, can understand that sentiment.
UCSB, meanwhile, after stumbling against UC-Riverside a week after the UCLA game, had a team meeting that resulted in new focus and 10 wins in the Gauchos' last 11 contests.
Big West Goalkeeper of the Year Kyle Reynish, who must continue to figure prominently if the Gauchos are to win the College Cup, kept seven clean sheets in that span and has been exceptional throughout the NCAA Tournament.
"I think the X-factor all along is if Kyle puts together another great game in goal [Sunday]," Vom Steeg said.
Oddsmakers no doubt will rate the Gauchos as long shots to win the national title. Not only did they lose to UCLA at home earlier this year, but UCLA has gone 30-2-1 against them all-time. And on top of that, UCSB endured a grueling semifinal that included two overtime periods and a penalty shootout to get past Wake. Because of the snow that forced postponement of both semifinals by a day, the teams have only 21 hours to rest before the College Cup final kicks off.
"The fact that the national title's on the line with one day's rest, recovery's going to be a huge factor," UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said.
Vom Steeg agreed, noting that the short recovery time exacerbates injury issues relating to the cold weather.
"I think we'll have everybody ready to go," he said. "We're very concerned when we get 35 minutes into the [Wake Forest] game and we start cramping up. I think that was a factor for us. We have to make a really good assessment about how many minutes guys can give [in the championship]."
But the Gauchos clearly do not pay attention to odds. After going on the road to beat No. 1 Southern Methodist, Old Dominion and Northwestern, and then knocking off Wake Forest, UCSB coach Tim Vom Steeg and his players will feel that they overcame longer odds multiple times already in this tournament.
Don't forget that UCSB also reached the national title game in 2004. Many of the Gauchos players remember the feeling of coming so close, and Vom Steeg, the master motivator who engineered the Gaucho's turnaround, will not let them forget that.
Salcedo faces something of the opposite situation. He has been involved in three of the Bruins' four national titles: In 2002 as an assistant coach; in 1990 as a Bruins player, and in 1985 as the team's ball boy. However, 14 of his 18 players are underclassmen. They do not share his experience in these big games.
"What I keep telling them, and what I'll tell them again before the championship game, is that we have to continue to play the game the same way," Salcedo said.
"We can't change things at all because the stakes are little bit higher or the game's more important. We have to continue to do the things that we've done well and continue to do them a little bit better. As a player, I was fortunate to play in the NCAA championship game, the MLS Cup and to represent the United States national team, and this was just something that my father taught me: That you need to play the game the same way, not try and change the way you do things."
If UCLA keeps playing the same way, expect goals -- lots of them. The Bruins have scored three or more in five straight games. Midfielder Sal Zizzo, who has five goals and an assist in NCAA play, has been in scorching form of late, as has Estrada. Sophomore Jason Leopoldo and freshman Kyle Nakazawa also have shown a penchant for getting on the scoresheet.
For UCSB, the key will be unpredictability, defensive cohesiveness and scoring first. The Gauchos have lost just once in 16 tries when going up a goal. And Vom Steeg has been known to shake things up by throwing different formations at opponents. His defense has had a historic season, giving up just 21 goals in 24 matches, the ninth-fewest total in school history.
Vom Steeg also has a strong senior leader in Irish midfielder Bryan Byrne. UCSB will count on free-scoring sophomore midfielder Eric Avila, who leads the team with seven goals, to generate attack. During the Gauchos winning run, Avila scored five of the team's 19 goals. He turned in a man-of-the-match performance against SMU, getting a goal and an assist, and scored again against ODU. Although Wake Forest finally slowed him down, Avila still showed a strong work rate and contributed much to the Gauchos' possession game, helping to keep the Demon Deacons from laying siege to Reynish's goal. And he scored the winning penalty.
So far, very little in this tournament has held to form. The ACC, which appeared dominant at the outset with seven teams getting into the tourney, has lost all of them -- three to UCLA. Few of the top seeds even reached the College Cup. Then the NCAA took the unprecedented step of postponing the semifinals for cold and snow.
With a record like that, nothing will come as a surprise in the Southern California derby on Sunday.
Mike Hanzel covers men's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.