Oct. 23. 110th minute. Colorado’s Stephanie Zuniga lines up, about 30 yards from the goal, to take a free kick for the Buffs. She sends a high ball in and it is met by Taylor Kornieck’s head to divert it past Cal goalkeeper Emily Boyd. With the final play of the match, Colorado ended Cal’s undefeated run at home.
That moment started the capitulation that the Bears went through at the end of the season. Before this match, Cal was in second place in the Pac-12 and was coming off an impressive performance against conference heavyweights UCLA and USC. After the overtime loss, Cal fell to fifth place and was only able to win one of its last three matches.
The Bears had a very strong start to the season posting 12 wins, with two draws and losses each in their first 16 matches. The defensive unit spearheaded by Boyd and center back Indigo Gibson was impenetrable as it only conceded seven goals in these matches. The defense, along with defensive midfielder Miranda Nild, formed a solid backline that thrived in dispossessing opponents and also minimized the space that opponent forwards liked to work with.
Cal’s offense was led by forwards Arielle Ship and Ifeoma Onumonu, who scored 11 and 10 goals in the season, respectively. Ship played the role of a false nine in the 4-3-3 formation that Cal head coach Neil McGuire utilized for the most part of the season. Onumonu lined up on the left and freshman Abigail Kim played as the right winger. The main strategy that the forward line utilized was Ship dropping deeper to offer the three man midfield support up front and allow both wingers to drift inside. The strategy also allowed Ship to take on a creative role, as she led the team in assists with six.
McGuire’s possession-based strategy allowed his midfielders to dictate matches throughout the season, with Emma Fletcher and Kelly Fitzgerald being the main conductors. Fletcher, who originally started as more of an attacking midfielder, was given a deeper role after Fitzgerald was injured early in the season. Fitzgerald’s injury also allowed freshman Mia Corbin to break into the team, and she did in emphatic fashion against Oregon State, as she got on the scoresheet twice. Fletcher, meanwhile, thrived in the deeper role and recorded four assists in the season. Her ball control and on-ball speed allowed her to dribble up, thus opening up spaces for other players as she would regularly be double- or triple-teamed.
For all of Cal’s early success, the Colorado match took away the confidence and swagger with which it had performed early on in the season. The match itself was a tight one, with the Bears scoring two goals in the last two minutes of the match to tie it up. A bad refereeing decision in extra time that awarded Colorado the goal-scoring free kick, however, changed the tide of not only the match, but also Cal’s season.
In their remaining games, the Bears lacked the precision passing and fighting spirit that they had showcased throughout the season. The final match against Stanford was probably the biggest example of this, as after conceding the third goal, Cal went on the backfoot and seemed to have lost all hope of a comeback.
The Bears’ overall record in regular season, 13-5-2, allowed them to be selected for the NCAA Championships, where they faced Pepperdine, a team they had not faced in the past two years. Pepperdine proved to be a tough opponent for Cal and was able to scrape through on penalties.
All in all, it was a positive season for Cal, although most of its major players happened to be seniors. The Bears still have a very solid base as Boyd, Gibson and fullback Haley Lukas are juniors and will be returning for next season. The lack of success in overtime games, however, points to a need for better defensive substitutes, as the defensive unit looked tired in those matches. The offense will need a complete overhaul as Onumonu, Ship and Fletcher will be graduating in 2017. College sports are a lot about rebuilding squads, and McGuire has his work cut for the next few years as Cal will look to win that elusive NCAA title.