UCLA had the talent, the game and the belief -- and was playing in star forward Chandler Hoffman's hometown -- and thought that would be enough to bring home a fifth NCAA men's soccer championship trophy.
So when the Bruins (18-4-2) looked for whatever pluses they might find after watching top-seeded North Carolina (20-2-3) overcome two deficits en route to a victory on penalty kicks in Friday night's College Cup semifinals, they focused on what they brought -- and what it meant in a sizzling encounter.
“It was probably a great soccer game to watch from a fan's perspective, and it was very emotional and a lot of ups and downs for us and for me as a coach,” UCLA boss Jorge Salcedo said after his team was outtallied, 3-1, in the shootout following a 2-2 draw. “That was two good teams out there. They had momentum, we had momentum. They had good players, we had good players.
“When I watched that first semifinal” -- Charlotte's penalty-kicks triumph over Creighton following, it should be noted, a rather poor game -- “I thought to myself, 'At least put on a performance that's worthy of a national semifinal.' And I felt like we did. ... It was a good game and a great advertisement for college soccer.”
That doesn't make it any easier to lose, especially when everything seemed to line up so perfectly. Salcedo had tweaked the way his Bruins play the game, installing a fluid, inspiring possession game. UCLA had senior leadership -- a rarity with so many top players leaving early for the pros -- and immense skill, especially among the juniors and sophomores. The previous eight opponents hadn't found the net, tying a school record.
The Bruins had never gone so long -- nine years -- between NCAA soccer titles.
“I thought from the spectators' point of view, tonight was obviously a great game. A lot of great players out there tonight,” assessed Hoffman, the Bruins' top scorer with 18 goals, who played in front of a large group of family and friends. “That does not [make losing easier] at all.”
“Obviously, it's extremely disappointing to lose the game,” Salcedo said. “I told my guys after game I was really proud of their efforts and really proud that we put a good foot forward and played a good match. Unfortunately, we lost in penalty kicks.”
DIFFERENCE-MAKERS: UCLA was the better team during large swaths of both halves, and the Bruins were unfortunate not to get more from their midfield dominance in the half-hour halftime.
“When we scouted them, you could see they're used to managing the game, used to being in control of the game,” Salcedo said. “I knew we would have momentum, they would have momentum. Sure enough, we had some really good moments and they had really good moments.
“I thought by us having more moments than they're used to by other teams they play, I thought they would be impatient, make some rash plays.”
It happened as Salcedo planned it, and UCLA took a 17th-minute lead on Ryan Hollingshead's spectacular drive from 25 yards. Although the Bruins had much more of the ball the rest of the half, they struggled to find chances -- Matt Hedges did remarkable work stifling fellow All-American Hoffman -- except through Kelyn Rowe.
North Carolina's difference-makers made differences.
Ben Speas, who won an NCAA title at Akron last year (beating the Tar Heels in the semifinals) and then transferred to Chapel Hill, hit the right post, then made a spectacular run around the left side to set up Rob Lovejoy's equalizer nine minutes into the second half. Kirk Urso was everywhere doing everything, lifting Carolina to another level when it was required. Billy Schuler held the ball to link teammates and emerged from quiet spells with real chances -- and then he charged the net in the 85th minute to force overtime.
Best of all was midfielder Enzo Martinez, whose vision and skill on the ball caused havoc throughout the second half. It was his shot, requiring a miracle save from UCLA goalkeeper Brian Rowe (who didn't get the bounce he needed off the right post), that Schuler put away to tie the score.
“You should never really count them out. They're always going to be dangerous,” said Hoffman, who assisted both UCLA goals. “They came out and we able to find that goal to tie it up. They did a great job responding. Unfortunately, we gave up that late goal.”
Said Salcedo: “They showed some maturity and a lot of resiliency to be able to come back with the second goal. I think our goal [by Kelyn Rowe in the 74th minute] -- that goal was a great goal -- and I thought it would knock the wind out of their sails. But they showed the heart of a champion. I think this is their year.”
HOFFMAN'S END: Hoffman limped off with a hamstring cramp four minutes into overtime, and his absence deprived the Bruins of their primary scorer over 16 critical minutes and into the shootout.
“I was just cramping like I've never cramped before,” he said. “I thought we had a lot of guys and I really believe in our bench, I thought they'd be able to make a play. I thought I would get healthy and be good for Sunday.”
Salcedo asked him if he could take a penalty kick.
“I was over on the sideline stretching during the first overtime,” Hoffman said. “Then when I'd get up and start to move, it would start cramping. I'd stretch it out again, and it would start cramping again. I was tempted to take one but I was afraid any sudden movement in my leg would make me cramp up, and I believe in my teammates, that they would be able to get us to Sunday. It's unfortunate.”
Salcedo said Hoffman would have taken UCLA's second penalty kick, after captain Andy Rose, whose shot was saved by Tar Heels goalkeeper Scott Goodwin. Rowe, shooting second, also was stopped by Goodwin.
“Who knows?” Salcedo said. “He was the guy we sould have put second, and who knows what happens if he'd taken a penalty kick. You need a little bit of luck.”
Hoffman and Rowe now weigh their futures. Both are expected to accept Generation adidas offers from Major League Soccer and be among the first selections -- and possibly the first and second -- in next month's MLS SuperDraft.
“I'll be talking with my family the next few days, talking to the coaching staff, see what the opportunities are with MLS,” Hoffman said. “And then I'll make a decision.”