At 8-8-2, UCLA, the No. 1 team in the Soccer America Men's Preseason Top 25, faces the unthinkable.
If the Bruins lose to San Diego State in their regular-season finale next Wednesday at Drake Stadium, they will finish with their first losing record in 41 years as an NCAA varsity sport.
A loss would also eliminate the Bruins from NCAA Tournament consideration for the first time in a quarter century. (The NCAA won't consider a team for an at-large berth with a losing record.) With a win, UCLA would probably get in as an at-large team since it should finish with a high RPI ranking.
It's been a long season for the Bruins, who began 0-2-1 and were 4-5-2 four weeks ago, but after a brutal non-conference schedule -- including games against teams currently ranked No. 4, No. 11, No. 12, No. 13 and No. 18! -- they seemed to turn the corner with four straight wins in the Pac-10.
But problems resurfaced at home 10 days ago when UCLA dominated Washington but fell, 1-0. It then lost to Stanford, 2-1, and California, 3-1, on its swing through the Bay Area, leaving it at 4-4-1 in the Pac-10 with only the game against SDSU left on the schedule.
In both the Stanford and Cal games, UCLA was flat and had to play catchup.
David Estrada, last year's Soccer America Freshman of the Year, had a chance to put the Bruins ahead against Stanford in the first half but was stopped on a breakaway. Stanford scored shortly before and after halftime and the Bruins never caught up.
Like against Stanford, Maxwell Griffin scored against Cal with the Bruins trailing, 2-0, but they never could get the equalizer in Berkeley.
Even though star Sal Zizzosigned with German club Hannover 96 on the eve of the season, the Bruins were still loaded with some of the country's top youth internationals, including goalie Brian Perk and midfielder Tony Beltran, two of Zizzo's teammates on the U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2007 U-20 World Cup.
Estrada was sidelined early with a foot injury, and the UCLA attack has struggled (only 23 goals in 18 games). Estrada, who scored 11 goals late in the season to lead the Bruins on their run to the Men's College Cup final, has scored only three goals in 11 appearances in 2007. Former U.S. U-17 star Kyle Nakazawa has scored one goal in 18 starts. Only Griffin (nine goals) has more than three goals.
Last year's team had experienced even greater losses -- Marvell Wynne left early to sign with MLS, Kamani Hill red-shirted, then moved to Germany's Bundesliga, and captain Brandon Owens and Griffin were sidelined with injuries -- and still came back to come within one game of winning UCLA's fifth national title.
This year's team is one of the great enigmas in the recent history of college soccer.
"It's extremely disappointing, given that we had a lot of guys coming back from last season," fourth-year Bruin coach Jorge Salcedo told the Daily Bruin on Monday. "We were looking forward to having a very successful season, and obviously at 8-8, it's bitterly disappointing."
For the Bruin men, the season is particularly disappointing because the UCLA women are where they hoped to be: No. 1. After losing their opening game to Texas, 2-1, in Houston, Jillian Ellis' women are unbeaten in their last 16 games.