Cal men’s soccer kicks off season against St. Mary’s, Penn State

Mitzi Perez/File

Distance makes the heart grow fond.

But the Cal men’s soccer team won’t be eager to catch up with its Bay Area neighbor, St. Mary’s, when they face each other Friday for the first time since 2010. The Gaels, however, won’t mind the lack of hospitality as they’ll be determined to start their campaign with a major victory.

St. Mary’s was well on its way to win its second league title last year. But a disheartening extra-time home loss against eventual co-champion San Diego dashed the Gaels’ hopes of claiming their first title since 2011. The possibility that the Gaels could have finished the season as champions had they picked up one or two favorable results haunts them in their quest to exorcise their demons.

The Bears, on the other hand, are no strangers to speculation and ‘what-if’ scenarios. Last year’s stretch of six winless games consumes Cal head coach Kevin Grimes’ men, who ponder if a single win or tie might have been enough to see them earn a post-season berth.

Regardless of where they ended their regular season last year, both programs will look to regain their swagger at the other’s expense. The two teams’ young players’ ability to thrive as starters or substitutes will be crucial.

For St. Mary’s head coach Adam Cooper, the influx of new talent may be more detrimental than beneficial. Cooper will need to determine whether or not to consistently field his preferred group of veterans or attempt to transition his 18 new players into his system early in the season. Going with his tried and true players will reduce the odds of a few rookie mistakes costing the Gaels some precious points in the standings, or perhaps even the league title. But sticking to his old guard may halt his team’s growth in the long run.

Grimes also finds himself with a similar problem, yet not as troublesome as the one that Cooper faces. The five-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year only has three seniors, who all figure to feature in his starting eleven. He also has a handful of juniors and sophomores, who’ll easily have the opportunity to continue developing on game day and help the younger players find their stride in his system.

But just because Grimes appears to have the edge on his St. Mary’s counterpart, his defenders shouldn’t get overconfident about the Gaels’ lack of numerous goals stemming from a single player. As indicated by St. Mary’s Will Kendall — who led the team in goals scored last year with a total of four — the Gaels proved that they are a side that can compete for their conference’s top prize, thanks to several players who can find the back of the net at least once and to a stingy defense that closes games.

Only St. Mary’s senior defender Alex Braman has scored more than three goals during his time with the Gaels. But Cal senior defender Nick Lima and company will aim to prevent him from finding the back of the net and from inspiring his team to remain organized as a defensive unit.

After Grimes’ men finish their bout against St. Mary’s, a fixture against Penn State awaits them Sunday.

The last time the Bears went up against the Nittany Lions, Cal settled for a 1-1 away tie in September 2013. In that match, defender Steve Birnbaum — who now plays with Major League Soccer’s D.C. United — gave Cal a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute, only to later see Penn State’s Kyle MacDonald equalize in the 77th minute.

Both goal scorers are long gone, so eyes will be on the Bears’ Christian Thierjung and the Nittany Lions’ Connor Maloney to propel their sides to victory. The two forwards led their teams in goals scored last year with nine and seven, respectively.

Thierjung will have the opportunity to open up his 2016 goal scoring account this weekend and to ensure that his senior year ends on a better note than it did for his teammates last year.

Manny Flores covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @manny_0.