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Final

NCAA: UCLA eye title after rebounding from slow start

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Sipsey

Coming into the 2011 season, UCLA’s expectations were sky-high.

Stocked with a talented roster and the return of their entire starting lineup, which included US youth internationals Eder Arreola and Kelyn Rowe, the Bruins were penciled in as preseason favorites to make the College Cup.

But after the first three games of the season, UCLA didn’t have a win, providing a reality check for anyone presuming a trip to the College Cup would be a cakewalk for the Bruins.

“The first two weekends the group was just kind of expecting that we were going to go undefeated or we were going to be able to win every game,” forward Chandler Hoffman told MLSsoccer.com. “Obviously, it was a wakeup call losing 2-0 to Louisville, and when we lost to UC Davis [the second weekend], that was definitely the bottom point in our season.”

Two things happened along the way to the College Cup, though, which was secured last Saturday with a 1-0 overtime defeat of Louisville.

The first was Hoffman, a native of Birmingham, Ala., evolved into a dominant striker, scoring 18 goals on the year and garnering selection as a Hermann Trophy Semifinalist.

“He’s been a big part of getting us here,” head coach Jorge Salcedo told MLSsoccer.com. “He’s really excited to play in front of his family and friends. He knows that we have a chance to win a championship.”

The second was the team’s evolution into a defensively stout unit, one that hasn’t conceded a goal in eight games (all victories), backstopped by experienced goalkeeper Brian Rowe and buoyed in the central midfield by the stout presence of Andy Rose.

To Salcedo, the stellar defensive record is simply a byproduct of the team’s desire to play a possession-oriented style and consistent improvement throughout the season with the ball at their feet.

“We’re playing the same way. We are trying to keep possession, try and get numbers around the ball,” he said. “When we have the ball, [we want] to keep the ball as much as we can and try and create chances.”

One surprising development has been the benching of Kelyn Rowe, one of the nation’s brightest young prospects. Since the tournament began, the attacking midfielder has come off the bench, although he has still played around 60 to 70 minutes per game.

Salcedo said he hasn’t ruled out bringing him back into the lineup for Friday’s semifinal against North Carolina (8:30 pm ET, ESPNU, ESPN3.com).

“I just made that decision a few games ago, thinking that was the best way to approach some of these games,” Salcedo said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s not a starter moving forward. You could see him start the match Friday night.”

Now riding high, and with their early season struggles far in the past, the Bruins are heading to Alabama with a clear goal in mind.

“When we brought it in [after practice Monday], the first thing that Jorge talked about was just making sure we weren’t complacent, we weren’t settled with just making it to the Final Four,” Hoffman said. “That we were doing everything this week to prepare our bodies, our minds to win a national championship and to not just get caught up in making the Final Four and thinking that was enough.”

Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com. You can follow him on Twitter @travismclark.