Bears look to build own identity in 2011 after last year’s success

Michael Restrepo/File
Senior Ted Jones is redshirting this season, but will still serve as a co-captain.

The Cal men’s soccer team broke all sorts of records last year. After advancing to the sweet 16 of the NCAA College Cup for the first time in program history, the squad also managed to have six of its players drafted into the MLS — the most Bears in one offseason.

Add on top of that, a viral video that made them YouTube sensations and the 2010 season will be a difficult one to emulate.

Despite the loss of the seven graduating seniors, coach Kevin Grimes has inked eight recruits. And the newly elected captains — juniors Steven Birnbaum and Tony Salciccia and senior Ted Jones – are primed to lead the young Bears to another winning season.

“We are excited for what lies ahead,” Salciccia said. “Even though it’s a new team in a lot of ways, I have faith.”

Cal will first be tested when it meets Santa Clara in mid-September for the last game of the Bay Area Classic. Their last meeting resulted in a close 2-1 win, and the Bears will look to perform well to gain momentum as the newly named Pac-12 conference will get underway at the start of October.

The squad will open league play with arguably its toughest weekend down in Southern California. UCLA is projected to finish first in the highly competitive league, one spot in front of Cal’s projected second place standing. The Bears will end the weekend against San Diego State, which proved to be a tricky test last year with the 1-1 tie.

Cal won’t have a break the next weekend, as it is slated to face Stanford. However, the Bears’ schedule thins out in the middle of the season before the Bears face those same three challenging teams to close conference play at Edwards Stadium in November.

Early in the season, Cal seems to have developed the cohesion and chemistry that will be pivotal to its success down the stretch. In its season opener, the Bears secured their first win with junior John Fitzpatrick’s game winner against the University of San Francisco.

Birnbaum’s strong presence in the center of the defense will be key for Cal to keep the shutouts this season. He is the only starting defender returning to the line up season. With Salciccia stringing the passes in the midfield (he assisted Fitzpatrick’s goal last weekend) and Fitzpatrick finishing them off, the three juniors will produce a lethal combination throughout the park.

The freshmen newcomers will have a solid foundation to lean on. Conner Hallisey and Seth Capisle both bring U.S. youth national team experience. Capisle got the nod for the start for the San Francisco match and produced an encouraging display at the midfield position. Jones, the lone senior, will be redshirting this year, but looks to provide moral support.

The Bears are good at proving people — and stats — wrong. After finishing its 2009 season without a bid to the NCAA tournament, Cal was predicted to finish the 2010 season with a third-place finish in the Pac-10, and the National Soccer Coaches of America preseason poll (NSCAA) didn’t even have the team ranked.

Coach Kevin Grimes received Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards and six players were named to all Pac-10 teams. A No. 7 national ranking was bestowed upon the Bears to start the 2011 campaign, along with a  second place conference ranking. Although some concerns have been raised regarding the inexperience and lack of depth in this year’s roster, the Bears are confident that their hard word and passion will trump any bumps along the way.

“This team has heart,” Birbaum said. “On paper and on the field, we look promising.”