Since the start of the season, the attention on the Cal women’s soccer team was focused not on the present roster, but on the player no longer with the team.
Over the summer at the Women’s World Cup, star striker Alex Morgan skyrocketed to becoming one of America’s most popular athletes. Her two goals in the semi-finals and finals of the tournament made her a Twitter superstar — now she has over 200,000 followers on Twitter.
But Morgan’s stardom and tournament success in the international stage did not translate as well with the Bears. Despite Morgan leading the team with 14 goals last season, Cal was knocked out of the first round in the NCAA tournament.
In the midst of its first season without Morgan since 2006, the team is facing questions about replacing her. Six games in, the Bears (5-1) seem to have found their answers.
Senior forward Katie Benz has tallied eight goals already this season. As the leading scorer in the Pac-12 by a margin of three goals, Benz — limited in her first three years at Cal due to injuries — has been a delightful revelation for coach Neil McGuire, who enters his fifth year at the helm.
“She’s prepared, motivated and the leading striker for this team,” McGuire said. “Strikers get most of the goal opportunities, but regardless she has done an incredible job in all aspects.”
Benz’s scoring spree naturally draws comparisons between her and Morgan. As Morgan’s backup for the past two seasons, Benz never had the opportunity to draw such comparisons while playing on the team together. Still, they have clear differences in how they play.
“Both (have) a similar nose for the goal,” McGuire said. “Morgan is taller and faster while Benz had to find her ways around using intelligence.
“But really, this season is more about Benz than about Morgan, so I hope we can focus on that.”
Even with the ascension of Benz as the squad’s lethal scorer, the Bears have an array of different attacking options that the team lacked last season.
Forwards Miranda White and Mekenna DeBack have had success early in the season playing behind Benz, scoring career highs in goals, three and four goals, respectively. Junior Lauren Battung has continued her success from last season, already scoring four goals compared to seven all of last year.
Despite finding success early in the season, the biggest worry for Cal right now is the dip in performance as the season wears on, as seen last year. In the first seven matches last season, the Bears have won five and tied two, a familiar echo to their current 5-1 record.
The path to maintain their fast start will be difficult for the Bears as the conference play starts. The Pac-12 is one of the deepest conferences in the nation and is home to two top-10 teams in No. 2 Stanford and No. 6 UCLA.
But unlike last year, when several key players were injured, all the players at Cal are healthy enough to play, at least for now. For McGuire, the overall fitness of the team will decide whether the Bears can succeed later on in conference play and the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a wonderful experience to have all the players ready for action,” McGuire said. “It might not be so easy for the players who want to play, but everybody’s on board that this season it’s all about the team.”