Aug. 17, 2006
By Bryan Armen Graham
Bryan is a basketball editor for CSTV.com and contributes on a regular weekly basis.
There's a vicious cycle in Westwood.
Sure, three of UCLA's last four recruiting classes have been ranked No. 1 in the nation by College Soccer News. But during that span, how many other collegiate programs have suffered such mass attrition to the pro ranks?
For example, just two players from the program's much-heralded recruiting class of 2003 -- defenders Kiel McClung and Brandon Owens -- are returning for their senior seasons. Only McClung will suit up for the team's opener against Cal State Northridge on Aug. 26, as Owens tore his ACL in the spring.
"That class had Chad Barrett and Benny Feilhaber and Patrick Ianni, and all those guys have obviously moved on," said Jorge Salcedo, third-year coach of the Bruins. "Today I did an interview and I put up on a board the players we would have had [this season] and that team might have been competitive in the MLS.
"But you can't cry over that, you can't worry about it, you've just got to move on."
Indeed, often those programs that suffer the most from underclassmen leaving school to enter the pros are the ones best-equipped to fill the holes. But the constant reshuffling has proved a "double-edged sword" according to Salcedo, a former All-American at the Westwood school. Half of the names of the 26-man roster are newcomers: a dozen freshman and one transfer in all.
"It creates a cycle of having a young team," Salcedo said. "It makes it difficult to have any true and real leadership on the field, because that generally comes from upperclassmen, from juniors and seniors."
Since UCLA has been unable to foster leaders the traditional way -- through patient germination over a four-year span -- Salcedo decided to take a page from the school's football coach.
Last year, Karl Dorrell taught six-week leadership class to a group of his seniors. This summer, Salcedo followed the example and enlisted a group of two sophomores, two juniors and two seniors -- McClung, Eric Reed, Greg Folk, Mike Zaher, Brad Rusin and Sal Zizzo -- to take a similar course. The coach handpicked several books for the five-week study and met with the group once a week to discuss the importance, nature and qualities of leadership.
"Something we've lacked over the past couple years is senior leadership," Salcedo said. "[We have missed] the guys that have really stepped into those roles and said, `Hey guys, jump on my back, I'm going to lead the team.'"
It's not outlandish to imagine that this shortcoming has contributed to the team's underwhelming performance in some big games under Salcedo.
Last season, the Bruins won their fourth consecutive Pac-10 championship in Salcedo's second season. UCLA didn't surrender a goal at home for the entire year -- until a surprising 3-0 loss to SMU in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was the team's second straight disappointing performance in the NCAAs under Salcedo, following a listless 2-1 third-round ouster in 2003 -- also at home -- at the hands of
"Initially, you're very disappointed," Salcedo said. "But as time wears on, you realize that there's only one team that's going to be happy at the end of the season. Unfortunately, it wasn't us the last couple years."
Leadership isn't the only issue affecting Salcedo's side as the season approaches. The injury bug has struck the Bruins in the opening week of training.
In addition to the loss of Owens, a three-year starter, the Bruins have lost a pair of defenders that were vying for starting positions. Incoming midfielder Chance Myers, perhaps the most versatile player on the squad, will miss six weeks after suffering a near-ankle fracture on the first day of preseason training. Junior Edwige Ligone, another projected starter in the back, fractured his leg Sunday during practice.
"Two of those three would be starting center backs for us." Salcedo said. "And now, they're all out."
Despite the overwhelming roster turnover and injury questions, the Bruins enter the season as the nation's No. 7-ranked team and the preseason pick to win their fifth straight Pac-10 championship. But Salcedo speaks of his team's prospects -- which depend so much on the integration of the newcomers -- with prohibitive optimism.
"They're very good players in high school and on youth teams, but college is a different beast. They're still unproven in college and none of them have played a college game," Salcedo said. "I can't tell you that all these supposed great players that we brought in are going to be great college players. It's just a different game.
"They have earned great accolades as youth players and it's great to be able to bring them all in. But time will tell."