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Dec 3, 2006

Explosive offense gives Bruins the edge

They might have had to wait a day to get there, but UCLA and UC Santa Barbara advanced to Sunday's College Cup final at Robert R. Hermann Stadium in St. Louis after both won their respective semifinal contests on Saturday.

In the first game of the doubleheader, UCLA exploded for four second-half goals to beat the fourth-seeded Cavaliers, 4-0. Non-scholarship freshman David Estrada was the hero for the Bruins, breaking the deadlock with two brilliant tallies that came just 67 seconds apart.

"We might have to [give him a scholarship] just to keep him around next year," joked UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo afterwards.

No such star emerged for either UCSB or No. 2 Wake Forest, who played to a scoreless tie in a rough-and-tumble second match. The Gauchos eventually won 4-3 on penalty kicks.

The semis originally were scheduled for Friday, but a major winter storm blanketed much of the Midwest with snow and ice and forced the switch to Saturday afternoon. UCLA and Virginia actually kicked off at noon, with UCSB and Wake getting underway about two-and-a-half hours later.

The finalists have met once already in 2006. On Oct. 5 in Santa Barbara, UCLA picked up a 3-1 victory in front of a national television audience. But like Salcedo says, "That game has absolutely no effect on what happens [Sunday]. They have improved since then, and it's hard to beat anyone twice in one season."

Still, UCLA is the odds-on favorite to win. The team is on a serious tear, outscoring its opponents 13-2 in four tournament tilts so far. Both goals it conceded came in the first half of last weekend's quarterfinal at top-seeded Duke, who the Bruins eventually rallied to beat 3-2 in overtime. But despite the gaudy stats, the most impressive thing about the Bruins is their attractive style of play. The slick ball movement and rehearsed cohesion on display Saturday really stood out and set them apart from an excellent but ultimately predictable Cavs squad.

UCSB entered the dance unseeded but has survived thanks in part to its experience. Four of Tim Vom Steeg's starters were on the team that shocked the college soccer establishment in 2004 by reaching the final, losing a PK heartbreaker to defending champion Indiana after a 1-1 draw in regular time.

No. 8 UCLA is playing in its first national championship game since 2002, when it beat Stanford for its fourth NCAA title. It also marked the last time the ACC was not represented in the final before this year.

By playing on consecutive days, fatigue could be a factor for both teams Sunday. The Gauchos have less than 24 hours to recover for the match. Not surprisingly, many of them were thoroughly spent after playing 110 minutes in freezing conditions on Saturday.

"We won't be able to play the same way, tactically, that we would if we had a week to prepare," says Vom Steeg. "We can't chase UCLA all over the field."

Similar weather conditions are expected for the final, which will be televised live on ESPN2 at 3 p.m. ET.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.