The road from conference play to the postseason can be treacherous for some teams, but coach Ryan Jorden said nothing is different for the Bruins as they head into their first NCAA tournament matchup.
“The reality for us is nothing really changes,” Jorden said. “We’re playing another game that affects the end of your season, just like all the rest of the games were in the Pac-12.”
Pac-12 champion No. 13 seed UCLA men’s soccer (9-3-5, 6-0-4 Pac-12) will kick off its postseason run Sunday night, hosting Loyola Marymount (8-4-6, 2-3-2 West Coast Conference) with 32 teams remaining in the College Cup after it defeated UC Irvine on Thursday 4-2 in the first round.
This is the first time the Bruins have headed directly into the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2014, when they eventually fell short in the national championship game to Virginia.
UCLA, which lost 1-0 to the Lions in October, will have the chance to get revenge on their West Los Angeles competition and inch one step closer to a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, next month.
However, the Bruins will only have two days to prepare for their competition, as a first-round bye offers rest but an uncertain matchup.
Jorden said receiving the seeding on Monday but not having to play until Sunday gives the team plenty of time to rest and get into a rhythm at practice. He added that even though their opposition needed to be set in stone, having the potential teams be two that the Bruins had faced previously in the season made preparation easier.
“Obviously, they’re a little bit different than they were when we played them last time,” Jorden said. “But our job is to learn the lessons from when we played them and look at what potential differences there are and how those fit.”
Junior defender Pietro Grassi – who has played in each tournament since arriving in Westwood – echoed his coach’s thoughts but said it is crucial to be wary of how other teams change in a knockout tournament.
“During a tournament, every team becomes a different version of themselves,” Grassi said. “They play with more motivation, even teams that did not do good in their conferences. It’s just extra motivation for them to do good… for some, it may even be the first time. So, we got to be mindful of that.”
UCLA’s defense – where Grassi features centrally – has been a bright spot, only conceding 0.57 goals per game over the team’s last seven games, going back to the defeat to LMU.
On the goalkeeping side, sophomore Sam Joseph and freshman Wyatt Nelson have started nine and eight games in goal, respectively, with Nelson starting six consecutive before Joseph took over for the final two of the season.
While Nelson conceded a goal in October against Sunday’s opponent in LMU, he holds a lower goals-allowed-per-game rate than Joseph, with an average of 0.88 to Joseph’s 1.22.
Jorden did not name a postseason starter between the sticks.
“We know our goalkeeping crew is fantastic,” Jorden said. “So we feel really comfortable whichever way we go.”
On the attacking side of the ball, the Bruins are heading into the postseason with critical members of their offense returning to health. Graduate students forward Jack Sarkos and midfielder Ryan Becher. In that same seven-game stretch in which the defense conceded fewer than a goal on average, UCLA scored nearly a goal and a half per game.
Senior forward Andre Ochoa – noted for his versatility on the field – said he feels confident in himself and his teammates to score when it matters during the postseason, even if down to the wire in penalties.
“If it happens, I feel that we’ll take it,” Ochoa said. “Anything can happen in penalties, but we have some good shooters, so we’ll be fine.”
Ochoa added that when it came to who the Bruins faced Sunday, he was focused only on one thing.
“I don’t really care,” Ochoa said. “I just want to go out there and get that win.”