Cal men’s soccer falls to USF 2-1 in first round of NCAA tournament

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Stephanie Li/File

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In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Bears faced USF in a nail-biting matchup whose drama was only elevated by the consistent downpour. Cal, despite numerous offensive charges that seemed hopeful in the second half, fell to the Dons 2-1, ending its season and run at the national title.

USF, which Cal beat earlier in the season 3-2, came with an urgent, attacking mindset. It was especially glaring when compared to the Bears’ slower start. The Dons amassed five shots before Cal even got one.

On top of the high energy that USF brought at the outset of the game, the wet surface constituted an obstacle for Cal, as it is a team that relies heavily on possession and switching the field. The constant drizzle decreased visibility on the field, and the slippery nature of the ball and grass forced a high number of turnovers, with possession switching back and forth every few seconds.

In the 36th minute, USF tested sophomore goalie Drake Callender with a series of two shots within 30 seconds. He first had to slide on the ground to block a low shot from close range and then jump to catch a spiraling ball coming in from outside the box. Throughout the first half, Callender saved the Bears on multiple occasions — the sole reason why Cal was able to enter halftime 0-0.

“In the first half, we looked a little bit tentative and not quite our normal aggressive self that we have seen in our team over the last 6 or 7 weeks,” said Cal head coach Kevin Grimes.

The Bears were able to catch the Dons off guard barely 30 seconds into the second half, as junior Sam Ebstein laid the ball off to senior Aravind Sivakumar, who was able to volley it in for a picture-perfect goal. It was a big moment for Sivakumar, for whom it was the first significant playoff appearance of his collegiate career since the Bears last qualified in 2014.

The goal seemed to flip a switch for the Bears, as they immediately began to focus more on offensive positioning. Yet, USF answered five minutes later with a goal of its own, upping the score to 1-1.

The race was on to see who could break the stalemate first. And it seemed to be Cal, until senior Jose Carrera-Garcia’s goal in the 61st minute was recalled on an offsides violation. Instead, USF took advantage of a loose ball in Cal’s defensive third and converted it for a goal in the 79th minute.

The pace of the game favored a more vertical style of play, based upon working the ball up the field in the quickest way possible. This tactic was used by the Bears especially in the last 10 minutes of the game. While Cal was persistent in its offensive attacks during this period of time, the Dons buckled down on defense, solidifying their 2-1 win.

“We simply played in a game that could have gone either way, and we could very easily be going to Louisville tomorrow, and it just so happened that Jose’s goal got called back,” Grimes said. “Those things sometimes go your way, and sometimes they don’t.”

Despite, the season-ending quality of the game, the Bears can be proud that they made it to the playoffs and were solidly better than last season.

Lucy Schaefer covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]