As 4,613 goal-starved fans at the NCAA men's soccer final at the University of South Florida Stadium in Tampa bellowed for a winner, any winner, UCLA midfielder Jorge Salcedo gazed pensively at the ball. By converting this penalty kick, Salcedo could put an end to the shoot-out that was now deciding matters after the Bruins had battled Rutgers through 2½ scoreless hours of soccer. Salcedo was attempting to forget the three such kicks he had missed in high school and to keep in mind Rutgers goalkeeper Bill Andracki's tendency to commit to one side early.
Salcedo stutter-stepped, Andracki went left and Salcedo flicked the ball into the right side of the goal for the win. With that, gleeful UCLA players piled onto each other at midfield. Then, of all things, they burst into song, a takeoff on the theme from the TV show Gilligan 's Island they had penned for the occasion. It began, "Now sit right back and you'll hear a tale, of the Bruin club," and concluded, "We own Tampa Bay."
It was a god-awful rendition, but the fans gave the Bruins a nice hand anyway, and you couldn't much blame them. The only other creative element evident in this tepid finale was UCLA's feat of emerging with its second national championship in six years without scoring a goal in regulation or overtime play all weekend.
Which is not to say that the Bruins are completely undeserving victors. If their offense, which outscored opponents 61-16 in 22 games this season, was missing in Tampa, their defense, anchored by freshman goaltender Brad Friedel, held firm when it had to. "We've had a lot of success with our offense," said UCLA striker Billy Thompson, an 18-goal scorer this season, "but it's defenses that win championships."
Luck and resolve help too. After surviving the shoot-outs that decided both their matches, the unflappable Bruins claimed this exhausting weekend in what their coach, Sigi Schmid, termed "a tribute to mental determination."
Going into the tournament, the slight favorite was Evansville, Rutgers' opponent in Saturday's first match. The Purple Aces boasted the nation's top-ranked goaltender, Trey Harrington, and the second-leading scorer, David Weir. That combination and a high-pressure style of play had given the Aces a 24-0-2 record and victories in their last 20 matches. Weir, a hulking 6'3", 205-pound striker nicknamed Ox, grew up in the city of Falkirk, Scotland, where schoolchildren must recite Robert Burns poems on the poet's birthday, something Weir described as "a chore." Who better to mark him, then, than 6'3", 185-pound Rutgers co-captain Alexi Lalas, an English major with red hair whose own poems are published in Rutgers literary magazines? Weir wasn't a factor because, as Evansville midfielder Graham Merryweather of Southwell, England, put it, everywhere he went, "he had that big ginger-headed lad breathing down his neck."
Throughout the game, Evansville looked tentative, even flustered. With less than two minutes remaining in the first half, midfielder Pedro Lopes raced down the right sideline and pushed the ball ahead to Lino DiCuollo, whose arching cross found Mike Miller all alone for a header six yards from the goalmouth. Harrington had no chance on what would be the tournament's only regulation-play goal.
The second semifinal matched North Carolina State and UCLA. Before the game, the Wolfpack's Argentine coach, George Tarantini, said, "Soccer is not popular here in the United States because we don't entertain people. Soccer should be happiness and passion." His team proceeded to outshoot the Bruins by a staggering 33-14 count, all but vivisecting the Bruin defense in the process. It was to no avail, though. Brilliant play in the nets by Friedel excused a multitude of Bruin defensive sins, most prominently the red card and tournament expulsion fullback Ray Fernandez earned when he punched North Carolina State forward Roy Lassiter in the stomach near the end of the first half of overtime.
Still scoreless after two 15-minute overtime periods, the game came down to penalty kicks. UCLA went five for five. Friedel deflected Scott Schweitzer's shot and left the Wolfpack howling at the nearly full moon that shone on the stadium. "North Carolina State was the better team," Schmid said afterward. "They outplayed us the entire game."
"I'm skipping confession tomorrow," said Tarantini, who had left the field to pray by himself during the penalty kicks.
Beyond forgiveness are the bonehead-ed NCAA committee members who scheduled the semis and final without a rest day between. It should have been a lively final. UCLA's lone loss this year was a 2-1 decision to Rutgers in October. Both teams play fast-paced soccer and in Rutgers striker Steve Rammel and UCLA midfielder Chris Henderson, each possessed one of the most feared players in the college game. Weariness prevailed, however, in an even game: Each team took 22 shots. Late in the second half, with fans shouting, "Do something," the 5'5", 135-pound Thompson, whose mates call him Wee Man, squirted past two defenders and slid a shot by Andracki. It hit the post, and Thompson shot the rebound high.
After another scoreless hour of overtime, during which some players collapsed with leg cramps, the final shootout began. Before each shot, Friedel stretched his long arms skyward and grabbed the eight-foot crossbar. The sight seemed to rattle Rutgers' second and third shooters. Rammel shanked one wide right, and Mueller's shot went high. "Mueller didn't look confident," said Friedel. "He stared at me when I was touching the post. I looked at him and thought, Hmmm." After UCLA's Sam George failed, Joe-Max Moore, Tim Gallegos, and Henderson all tallied, leaving Salcedo to nail down the 4-3 win.
Although staging a tie-breaking shootout was an improvement on simply declaring co-champions, as was done after last year's 1-1 final between Virginia and Santa Clara, it still concluded matters rather awkwardly. "The shoot-out has nothing to do with it," said Lalas. "We could have come out at three o'clock, flipped a coin and saved everybody the trouble." In these games with more zeros than heroes, he may have had a point.
Cobi Jones (right) battled Andres Maier for the ball in an exhausting, evenly matched finale.