Cal women’s soccer looks to thrive amid possible relocation

Daniel Ho /File

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With football and basketball programs in less-than-ideal shape and a Cal Athletics program that is notoriously known as the most in-debt athletics program in the nation, fans of Golden Bear sports might be needing a new hero. The question, then, is which team can carry the heavy burden of rousing support from the multitudes of disenchanted Cal fans. Will it be the national champions of the men’s water polo team? The tennis team? Or perhaps football fans will turn toward a field that is far more familiar to them and find their hero in the Cal women’s soccer team.

But if the women’s soccer team wants to be that hero, it will certainly have to work at it. With the graduation of big-name stars such as Arielle Ship and Ifeoma Onumonu, who together combined for 21 of the team’s 37 goals in the 2016 season, the Bears will have to find new offensive lifeblood.

This could come in the form of sophomore Abi Kim, who was named to the Pac-12 All Freshman Team last season and netted 3 goals for the Bears on the way. But if Kim will be the team’s offensive Batman, she’ll need a Robin by her side. Enter the 11 incoming freshman that the Bears welcome to the program — a few who have the potential to become Kim’s goal-scoring sidekick.

On the short list for the role are forwards Denae Antoine and Emma Westin and midfielder Luca Deza. Indeed, many in this freshman class have the potential to ignite the Cal offense — six of the 11 play forward or midfield.

While the Bears’ offense may not know who its hero will be yet, its defense certainly does. Senior goalkeeper Emily Boyd is a force to be reckoned with in the back, as she’s already made her way into the Cal record books with most career shutouts at 26. Her prowess in the net is only bolstered by a strong defense of returners, who in 2016 limited opponents to only 11 shots per game and a total of 17 goals all season.

Unfortunately, the Bears have the bad luck of playing in the Pac-12, a conference that has four teams ranked in the top in the nation — No. 2 Stanford, No. 3 USC, No. 8 UCLA and No. 19 Utah. Cal was able to pull off a big upset against USC last season, but if it wants to best Goliath once again and contend for the Pac-12 championship, it will have to come up with a cohesive game plan for this season — and with so many young players, it isn’t clear what exactly that will be.

Tasked with the hefty responsibility of mapping out that game plan is head coach Neil McGuire, who returns for his 11th season. He’s had some success in the past, as he’s led the Bears to 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, although advancing far in the tournament has to this point eluded him.

With a near-even mix of veterans and newcomers, McGuire will have to find a way to mesh a multitude of playing styles into one that will fit well with the wide panoply of players. That lack of cohesion could prove to be the Bears’ Achilles’ heel this season, though only time will tell.

As the potential of losing its home field looms, this season is wildly important for the Cal women’s soccer program — and Cal Athletics as a whole. While the athletics department tries to revive its two biggest programs, it may find that its hero comes in another form — because this season has the potential to be a great one for the Bears if they can find some people to lead the way.

Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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