Cal men’s soccer seeks upset of No. 6 Stanford ahead of Big Game

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Lorenzo Dela Cruz/Staff

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In 1982, among the confusion of a Stanford marching band crashing the field and a presumed win, the Cal football team executed five laterals in the final four seconds of the game to ultimately defeat the Cardinal in a moment now famously referred to as “The Play.”

While the campus celebrations of that moment won’t start until next week, the Cal men’s soccer team (6-9-2) will set its sights on an early win in its own version of Big Game against the No. 6 Cardinal (11-2-4) on Thursday.

Minus the marching band, Cal’s play remains simple and unchanged since 1982 — upset the current Pac-12 leader. Stanford enters Thursday’s game on a four-game winning streak and 22 points, aiming to clinch the conference championship with a win or a draw against Cal.

Over the weekend, Stanford eliminated UCLA (10-7-0) from the conference championship race, while Oregon State continues to chase the Cardinal in second place at 19 points.

Cal, on the other hand, is experiencing a disappointing season full of inexperience, injuries and tight matches that didn’t fall its way, and it currently sits at the fifth-place position in the Pac-12. Cal enters Thursday’s match on the coattails of last Sunday’s first road win against the Aztecs from San Diego State.

First-half goals by freshman Taylor Davila and redshirt freshman Lucas Churchill gave the Bears a much-needed return to the win column, especially after an 87th-minute 1-0 loss to UCLA just days before.

The team’s offensive strategy of driving downfield and then feeding the ball to the middle culminated in sophomore Christopher Grey’s feed to Davila, a strategy the Bears will likely implement Thursday.

At last month’s bout between the two teams, Stanford’s defensive strategy kept the ball trapped through quick, small passes near midfield. The crowded midfield shut down Shinya Kadono, Cal’s feature forward and Pac-12 leading goal scorer, giving him neither the space nor time to utilize his deft footwork that has proved lethal throughout the season.

While the focus on Kadono allowed senior Sam Ebstein to notch a score of his own in the second half, the Cardinal ultimately prevailed, defeating the Bears 4-2.

Consequentially, the Bears will target their long game Thursday. They will aim to continue sideline drives, with aggressive offensive pulses provided by players such as Grey and Churchill. In the center of the field, Ebstein and senior defensive midfielder Sam Junqua will push forward to crash on a Cardinal defense that is headed by Pac-12 Player of the Week and redshirt junior Tanner Beason.

In the same way that the Cardinal will aim to shut down Kadono, Cal’s freshman defensive duo of J.J. Nuphaus and Ian Lonergan will pursue Stanford’s Zach Ryan and Amir Bashti. The redshirt freshman and senior forward have recorded eight and seven goals in 2018, respectively.

Setting the foundation for the long offensive drives, the defenders will anchor the ball at Nuphaus, whose long passes will then feed the ball to the sidelines. Cal’s starting goalie Drake Callender returned Sunday after an injury, recording a season-high seven saves and posting the Bear’s fourth shutout of the season.

With Cal’s disheartening season nearing its end, the team’s last chance to end triumphantly is to thwart the Cardinal — a hefty responsibility ahead of Big Game.

Alicia Sadowski covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].