Despite no NCAAs, Bears focus on positives

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On Sept. 28, as the cold fog descended on Edwards Stadium, the Cal men’s soccer team scored the golden goal to defeat San Diego State. The Bears improved to a 6-2-1 record, and at the time they believed they can contend for the Pac-12 title.

Then, everything started to go downhill.

In the next nine matches against five Pac-12 teams, Cal (8-7-3, 3-5-2 in the Pac-12) lost five and won just two matches. The team’s NCAAs chances took a huge blow after unexpectedly losing to last-place San Diego State on Nov. 1.

The final dagger to the Bears’ postseason hopes came in the 6-1 loss to Stanford in the season finale. Despite taking a 1-0 lead in the first half, Cal allowed five goals in the second half.

The tale of two halves at the Bay Area derby match was the entire season in a nutshell. Cal got off to a strong early start controlling the possession and pace until the team began to lose control and fall apart in the second half.

“It was one of those games where we just don’t what happened,” midfielder Seth Casiple said after the Stanford loss.

Despite the late-season collapse, though, the Bears are looking at this season through rose-tinted glasses.

Cal’s 8-7-3 season was a vast improvement over its abysmal 3-9-5 campaign last season. After losing nearly all its veteran players to professional soccer in 2010, Cal’s talent pool was hollowed out and was headed for a multi-year rebuilding project.

But the overall winning record and the emergence of several players had head coach Kevin Grimes optimistic about his team and the future.

“There was improvement, improvement, improvement from this team,” Grimes said. “It’s like the old adage about real estate: location, location, location. There were great strides made by all individual players and the team as a whole.”

The brightest spot on the Cal squad next year is on the center midfield. Alec Sundly and Casiple were two of the best technical players in the roster, with Casiple leading the team in assists for the second consecutive year.

However, the center of the pitch will miss senior Tony Salciccia. Salciccia was an exemplary box-to-box midfielder, a midfielder that can both cover defensively and create goalscoring opportunities.

In the defense, the graduation of fifth-year centre back Ted Jones, who has been the anchor of the defense, is a blow to the unit. Jones will pass the torch onto left back Christian Dean, who has terrorized opposing players all season with his superior physical talents.

Senior centre back Steve Birnbaum might be able to return to the team next season. Birnbaum was shut down for the entire season due to a knee injury and can possibly apply for a medical hardship waiver.

But the biggest question marks of this team lie in the striker position. Grimes’ four-player platoon in the forward position had wildly inconsistent degrees of success. With the graduation of seniors John Fitzpatrick and Kyle Lunt, there are currently only two strikers on the roster.

Grimes remains optimistic about his attacking options. Team-leading scorer Stefano Bonomo didn’t perform at his peak level due to a nagging ankle injury, and junior Luis Fuentes took huge leaps as a striker.

With a new class of strikers coming to Edwards Stadium next fall, Grimes is not worried about the current dearth at the position.

After finishing with a winning season, Cal is making strides to one day reach its 2010 zenith again. The hunger, as Grimes points out, is currently burning inside every player.

“They had the NCAAs at the tip of their tongues,” Grimes said. “Everybody’s got a twinkle in their eyes for next season.”

Seung Y. Lee covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]

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