Cal men’s soccer off and running against unfamiliar foes

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Maya Valluru/File

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One of the beauties of sports, especially soccer, is that there is no such thing as a guaranteed victory. All one has to do is ask Spain fans after their loss to Russia in the 2018 World Cup, the third-biggest upset in terms of ranking differentials.

But for the Cal men’s soccer team, an upset was the one thing it was hoping to avoid this past weekend, considering it hosted Detroit Mercy and Incarnate Word, two schools not necessarily known for their soccer prowess. After two closely fought contests, the Bears avoided Spain’s embarrassment and came out victorious in both matches.

On Friday, in the first action of the new season, the Bears battled the Titans, a scrappy squad out of the Horizon League. Throughout much of the first 15 minutes, the Bears dominated possession and consistently held the ball in the Titans half of the field.

Off a quick counter attack, however, the Titans stymied Cal’s dominance by forcing a penalty after a seemingly clean tackle in the box. Detroit Mercy sophomore Daniel Iyok converted the PK to take the early advantage in the 22nd minute.

Not too long after, the Bears’ persistent pressure finally paid off as an own goal from a Titan player tied up the score. For much of the rest of the game, the Bears dominated play, and it was only a matter of time until they grabbed the lead.

That moment came in the 62nd minute after a timely cross from senior Shinya Kadono was met by a powerful header courtesy of senior Sam Ebstein. In the end, Cal held onto its 2-1 lead and walked away unscathed.

“The great part of the match is that we came back from a goal down,” said Cal coach Kevin Grimes. “Anytime you do that in a game, it’s a wonderful sign.”

On Sunday, the Bears faced another stern test from the Cardinals. Like in its previous game, Cal dominated possession, which resulted in more goal-scoring opportunities. The game was completely shifted when Incarnate Word forward Marjan Gamsjager was shown a red card for a reckless tackle. The Cardinals dug in defensively and were able to escape the first half knotted at zero.

Once again early into the second half, Cal found its breakthrough via a beautiful cross from freshman Ian Lonergan that set up a Kadono header in the 48th minute. Cal would continue to muster more opportunities, but the score ended 1-0 — a win nonetheless.

While the Bears came away with two wins, one area that they have to improve upon is in the attacking third. Despite the numerous opportunities that were created, it’s no secret that Cal needs to be more patient in its buildup.

By far, the bright spot of the weekend was the defensive effort, highlighted by the center back partnership between Lonergan and freshman J.J. Foe Nuphaus. The two were rock solid in the back and played important roles in the team’s initial buildup.

All in all, the Bears took care of business and got off to a solid start. With stronger tests down the road, Cal will treat its next few nonconference games as opportunities to improve for the Pac-12 season.

Praveen Kuruppu covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].