UCLA can only hope the third time really is the charm.
The Bruins travel to Louisville to face the Cardinals on for the third time in less than a year on Saturday (7 pm ET), and they’ve come up empty in their two previous visits. But with a berth in the NCAA semifinals at stake, UCLA is hopeful a streak is about the be broken at just the right time.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to go back there and right the ship,” UCLA forward Chandler Hoffman told MLSsoccer.com this week. “After losing there two times, we feel like [the] third time’s a charm – this is going to be time that we get the victory and get to play in the [College Cup].”
Along with a regular-season match earlier this year – a 2-0 win for Louisville – last year, the two teams met in the same quarterfinals stage of the NCAA Tournament. That occasion was one to remember – a 5-4 win for the Cardinals that saw UCLA blow an early 2-0 lead before forward Aaron Horton (now with the Columbus Crew) bagged the game-winner in the last minute.
The wild circumstances of that night were trumped only by the conditions the game was played in, as steady snowfall made for an interesting evening.
“A lot of people remember the snow,” Louisville head coach Ken Lolla told MLSsoccer.com. “That was one of the things that stood out in everybody’s mind – it was a bit surreal how hard it was snowing.”
Both sides return almost their entire rosters from that fateful night, and each has experienced different paths to get back to this point in the postseason.
Louisville, expected to be national title contenders at the start of the season, began the season on a high note but wavered through the middle of their schedule and lost back-to-back games on two separate occasions.
But a talented lineup featuring pro prospects Nick DeLeon, Austin Berry and Colin Rolfe eventually shored things up, and the offense was flying high in last weekend’s 4-2 win over Maryland in the third round.
“I do think that we’re certainly more battle-tested at this point than we were a year ago,” Lolla said. “We played in a lot of good games this year, lot of hard games, especially on the road, and I think that helped us quite a bit.”
UCLA entered the year with similar expectations, losing no starters from 2010 and boasting a strong attack led by US youth internationals Hoffman, Kelyn Rowe and Eder Arreola. But the Bruins labored in the early stages of the season, going winless in their first three games, including the opening loss to Louisville.
But they’re currently riding a seven-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s game, and they haven’t conceded a goal in any of those victories. The contrast between opening day and now is staggering.
“We’re a much better team in all facets of the game at this point of the season than we were in August,” UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo told MLSsoccer.com. “The guys really bought into what we think is a successful formula: Keep possession of the ball, try to make the other team chase the ball, try and have 11 guys on the field that want the ball at all times.”
With Hoffman, in particular, soaring with 18 goals, the stage is set for another epic, late-round matchup of the two powerhouses. And with the forecast for Louisville calling for sunny skies and 58 degrees, it should be in conditions much more favorable to the Bruins this time around.
“In no way can it be worse than it was last year,” Salcedo said. “If it’s snow we’re ready for it; if it’s no snow and cold, great. No matter what, if it’s better than it was last year, it’s going to be ideal conditions.”
Here’s a look at the three other quarterfinal games this weekend.
No. 2 Creighton vs. No. 7 South Florida (Saturday, 2 pm ET)
Former UNC coach Elmar Bolowich has the Bluejays clicking. Senior goalkeeper Brian Holt has conceded five goals in 22 games, a staggering goals-against average of 0.23. That, combined with the scoring prowess of forward Ethan Finlay (13 goals) makes this Creighton side a formidable foe for visiting South Florida. Forward Dom Dwyer will need to recapture his early season goal-scoring form to give the Bulls a chance in this one.
No. 1 North Carolina vs. St. Mary’s (Saturday, 5 pm ET)
No one expected the Gaels to reach this point, and the West Coast Conference darlings are facing long odds to unseat the tournament favorites. Defense has been the key for St. Mary’s to get them to this point, and they’ll have to shut down Billy Schuler and the Tar Heels attack to have a chance at the upset against a UNC team in search of a fourth straight trip to the College Cup.
No. 3 Connecticut vs. Charlotte (Sunday, 1 pm ET)
Under-the-radar Charlotte is the tournament’s only other non-seeded team left, and like St. Mary’s, they face an uphill battle on the road. With weapons all over the field, including midfielder Tony Cascio, forward Stephan Diop and defender Andrew Jean-Baptiste, the Huskies are the clear favorites to advance to Birmingham.
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.