Nearly six months after finishing its season with a 3-9-5 record, the Cal men’s soccer team flew to Italy to play the under-20 squads of Serie A clubs.
Over the course of two weeks, the Bears faced five of the Italian soccer giants like AS Roma and Fiorentina. The campaign was surprisingly successful for Cal, which won two matches and only lost one.
“The trip showed that we can hang there with the big teams in Europe,” said senior forward Michael Munoz. “It gave the team so much confidence.”
With no seniors last year, the majority of the roster that traveled to Italy is coming back to Berkeley this season. From a squad that struggled the entire season due to inexperience, the Bears have emerged as one of the most talented and composed teams in the Pac-12.
Coaches around the conference have taken notice of the new-look Cal. Despite a last-place record in the Pac-12 last season, the Bears claimed the second spot in the Pac-12 preseason poll behind No. 2 UCLA, the defending Pac-12 champion.
“Coaches look at overall roster and the talent of the squad in these polls,” said Cal coach Kevin Grimes. “Our second-place finish is a by-product of a good preseason and our overall depth.”
But the No. 2 preseason poll must be considered with a grain of salt. The Pac-12 men’s soccer league, unlike football or women’s soccer, only consists of six teams. With the exception of the outstanding Bruins, all five teams were mediocre to bad last season.
While the Bears are at least a year or two from directly challenging UCLA for the Pac-12 crown, they have slowly built back their roster after a talent exodus in 2010. Two years since losing seven seniors to MLS, the Bears have recharged themselves with a new crop of up-and-coming underclassmen. While the squad only brought in one true freshman, Cal sports 10 sophomores, most of whom have solidified a playing role within the team.
The cream of the crop of the sophomore class so far has been midfielder Seth Casiple and defender Christian Dean. The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season, Casiple has emerged as the passing playmaker of the Cal offense, leading the team with six assists. Dean, who started 16 games last year at right back, impressed enough critics around collegiate soccer to be invited to the United States U-20 national soccer team last spring.
Nonetheless, the heart of this Bears squad belongs to the senior class that has weathered the up-and-down rollercoaster ride of this program over the past three years. Steve Birnbaum, Tony Salciccia and John Fitzpatrick are the vocal leaders of this young roster, and behind a more experienced midfield under Casiple and Salciccia, top scorer Fitzpatrick should net more than the five goals from last year.
With a more talented team and a middling Pac-12, Cal’s schedule this season is relatively smooth with a few bumps in between against top-25 teams. Aside from their cross-country trip to No. 9 Maryland and Virginia in two weeks, the Bears face a soft enough nonconference schedule to eclipse the three-win mark even before the Pac-12 season starts.
Coming off a transition year marred by inexperience, Cal is coming back more cohesive and confident this season. With the Italian campaign and the preseason all pointing to the resurgence of Cal men’s soccer, Grimes is anticipating a more elevated performance from the team.
“We are going to get more talented players on the field,” Grimes said. “We are going to defend with intensity and attack with creativity. Our style of soccer is one traditionalists of the game will like to see.”
Comments should remain on topic, concerning the article or blog post to which they are connected. Brevity is encouraged. Posting under a pseudonym is discouraged, but permitted. The Daily Cal encourages readers to voice their opinions respectfully in regard to the readers, writers and contributors of The Daily Californian. Comments are not pre-moderated, but may be removed if deemed to be in violation of this policy. Click here to read the full comment policy.