COLLEGE: Bruins living the dream

Chandler Hoffman of UCLA is returning home to Alabama to help lead the Bruins in the College Cup. Courtesy of Jeff Sipsey

LOS ANGELES -- Chandler Hoffman was heading home to Birmingham, and he was bringing a couple dozen of his best college buddies with him.

They hope to return to L.A. with an NCAA trophy.

Hoffman, a sure-to-be All-American striker, leads UCLA into this weekend's College Cup men's soccer final four in Hoover, Ala., where the Bruins figure to be a fan favorite, with all of his family and friends filling seats.

“Man, my phone has been blowing up. Facebook has been blowing up,” Hoffman said as the Bruins prepared for Friday night's semifinal showdown with top-seeded North Carolina. “Everyone's excited to come out. It should be like a home game for UCLA.”

This is what Hoffman has envisioned since word arrived earlier this year that the College Cup would be played in Birmingham's suburbs. Now that it's here -- and the Bruins are there -- he can barely contain his excitement.

“I'm so waiting for someone to pinch me and wake up,” he said. “It just feels like a dream.”

That dream comes true if UCLA (18-4-1) overcomes the Tar Heels (20-2-2), then knocks off second-seeded Creighton (21-2-0) or Charlotte (16-4-3) in Sunday's final. It would be the fifth NCAA men's soccer title in school history, and it would fulfill Jorge Salcedo's dream, too.

The Bruins' head coach has been part of three UCLA titles -- as a ballboy in 1985, a freshman midfielder in 1990 and an assistant coach in 2002 -- and came close to winning another in his third season in charge of the program.

“It would mean so much,” said Salcedo, who played for four Major League Soccer clubs, including the Galaxy, and Morelia in Mexico. “I quietly always hope that it's going to happen, and now, once again, we have another chance. The loss [to UC Santa Barbara in the final] in 2006 left a bitter taste in my mouth, because we were a good team back then, I think ready to win a championship. But I think we're even more ready now as a program to win one.”

The Bruins have ample talent, extraordinary depth -- especially in attack -- and solid upperclass leadership, and there's that destiny thing at work, too. At least Hoffman believes so.

“I had a feeling coming into the season, once I found out the final four was going to be in Birmingham, that we were going to be playing there,” he said. “I just had this belief, and it kind of spread through the whole team.”

EXTRAORDINARY GROUP: Hoffman, a junior, has been the primary protagonist in the Bruins' run, scoring 18 goals while helping weave together a vibrant attack that features Eder Arreola (Chino Hills/Chino Hills HS) and Ryan Hollingshead attacking the flanks, Reed Williams (Newport Beach/Corona del Mar HS) clearing space up front, Fernando Monge creating in midfield, and All-American midfielder Kelyn Rowe plus Spanish midfielder Victor Munoz and forwards Victor Chavez (Fontana/A.B. Miller HS) and Evan Raynr (Calabasas/Viewpoint HS) coming off the bench.

Andy Rose is the midfield anchor in front of a backline -- with Indiana transfer Matt Wiet and Joe Sofia (Dove Canyon/Mission Viejo HS) in the middle and Patrick Matchett (Laguna Niguel/Dana Hills HS) and Shawn Singh on the wings -- that, with goalkeeper Brian Rowe, has kept the Bruins' last eight opponents off the scoreboard.

It's an extraordinary group, the best Salcedo has had in his eight-year tenure, perhaps on par with the 1990 group that featured four players who went to World Cups.

“There's 14 or 15 guys you can throw on the field, and they're going to do an incredible job,” said Rose, an Englishman having an All-American-caliber campaign. “And some incredibly talented players -- national team-caliber players -- on the bench for us, and it's a huge psychological edge when after 25 or 30 minutes you see those guys coming on the field, and the other team puts their head down a little bit because they see great players coming on and the level never drops. We're a real team.”

There have been hiccups along the way. The Bruins opened the season with a loss at Louisville followed by a tie at Santa Clara and another loss at UC Davis, then on Oct. 22 conceded a late lead in a 3-2 loss to Cal State Northridge. They haven't given up a goal since.

“If you see our team in the beginning of the season, late August, and fast-forward to where we are now, it's night and day,” Salcedo said. “And it's night and day because although at the beginning of the season we took some knocks and lost some games we shouldn't have, in some ways that helped us develop as a team and grown as a team.”

TACTICAL SHIFT: That's crucial, because Salcedo changed things up after coming just shy of the final four the past two seasons. Early departures to Europe or MLS's developmental Generation adidas program -- seven players in six seasons, all but one of them a freshman or sophomore; Hoffman and Kelyn Rowe, a sophomore, could join the progression for next month's MLS draft -- played havoc with the Bruins' roster and helped derail title challenges.

And who could blame them: College soccer is not particularly respected for developing professional talent, although it does serve in the cause. That's not what spurred Salcedo's shift to a purely possession-style offense this season, but it plays hand in hand.

“I took a chance in the style we wanted to play this year,” said Salcedo, whose coaching staff includes former pros Eddie Soto, his teammate in the late 1980s at Cerritos High School and with the U.S. under-17 national team, and Kenny Arena, Galaxy boss Bruce's son. “I think we're unique to every other college team in the country, in that we'll pass the ball atop our own penalty box to keep possession. We'll get numbers around the ball in our half of the field. We don't necessarily make it a territorial game where we put it in the other half of the field and take our chances to win the ball back.

“We want to build the ball from back to front, and it's something that I feel strongly about -- and I feel strongly about teaching the guys how to develop that mindset, because it's really easy to break up the game and destroy the game and call it soccer. It's really difficult to make the game.”

In short, the Bruins keep the ball on the ground, look to pass to feet, move play around while probing for openings, make the other team chase a bit -- the beautiful game of Barcelona and vintage Brazil, of Holland and Spain. And with a bit of steel, too -- like the Galaxy.

It positions UCLA's program, already America's richest in producing professional talent, as a developmental academy of sorts -- as close to one as college soccer can provide -- helping create players for MLS and clubs abroad.

“That's the way the game is played at the next level,” Salcedo said. “High school and college soccer are the last two levels where you'll see such direct play, and they'll never play like that [in the pros]. Any of our guys who make it to the next level will never, ever be able to play like that and be able to be on the field, so we're preparing guys so if they do encounter the opportunity to play at the next level, they're prepared because they've done it for several months or a few years here at UCLA.”

This year's team had the talent and experience to deal with such a transition, and Salcedo believes it has left a foundation for big things to come.

“This is probably my best playing team I've had here at UCLA, and a lot of it is an understanding of what to do and how to do it as a staff and how to disseminate that information on the practice field but have the trust and confidence that it's going to be successful, as it has this year ...,” he said. “You evolve so much every year as a coach, and because we did have successful years, I felt like it gave me more confidence and sense of security to try some things. Whereas when I was hired, I was 32 years old, one of the youngest head coaches in Division I soccer, and so much of it was about me trying to get results to continue the tradition we had here, and that sacrificed a little of bit of what I thought the game should be like.

“Now I get to the point where I feel a little bit more secure, that I'm not going to be fired after one bad year, that now we can implement some things that I truly believe in. So hopefully this will be a springboard for the next few years.”