The defending national champions and unanimous No. 1 team in the nation. A spotless conference record this season with victories against the No. 2 and 3 teams in the nation.
That’s what the Cal women’s soccer team faces on Sunday against its indomitable rival Stanford at Edwards Stadium.
But despite the accolades their opponent owns, the Bears are focused solely on their performance in their regular-season finale.
“It’s really about how well we play, not who we’re playing,” says Cal head coach Neil McGuire.
No. 23 Cal (15-4, 8-2 in Pac-12) has been playing at a high level this season and could potentially upset the Cardinal. Despite a 3-0 setback against No. 2 UCLA last weekend, the Bears have won nine of their last 10 matches, most recently a 1-0 victory against USC following the UCLA match.
They have outscored their opponents 22-7 in the victories and 43-20 over the entire season.
But Stanford will be Cal’s toughest challenge all year, even more so than UCLA.
“We will be able to see what our weaknesses are as well as our strengths,” says McGuire.
As for the Cardinal, they also traveled to Southern California last weekend where they defeated the Bruins 2-1 and the Trojans 1-0 in double overtime.
But Stanford (16-1-1, 10-0) isn’t blowing away its opponents this year. Six of its ten Pac-12 matches have been won by a single goal, unlike last season where it won conference matches to the tune of 7-0 and 4-0.
Rather, the Cardinal have been a more calculating and methodical team this season. They have been stout on defense, giving up more than one goal only twice in 18 matches.
In addition, two of Stanford’s top three goal scorers, Courtney Verloo and Alina Garciamendez with six goals apiece, are actually defenders, showing the team’s propensity for set pieces where defenders often move into the box.
The Cardinal have been impressive and dominant, but they just haven’t been on quite the same level as last year when they romped to the NCAA title, outscoring their opponents 13-1 in the tournament.
That leaves an opening for Cal’s offense, which has been led up front all season by freshman phenom Ifeoma Onumonu, who leads the teams with 11 goals and five assists.
The rest of the lineup has also been a big contributor to Cal’s attack. Midfielder Betsy Hassett has helped steer the team up front with six goals and five assists while also controlling the center of the field. She has been aided by junior midfielder Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick, who has four goals and three assists.
If Onumonu and company can break through for a score like they have so many times already, and the back line holds up like it has all year, the Bears should be right there with the Cardinal.
After all, it is a rivalry, and in rivalries, anything can happen.
“The players really look forward to this game,” McGuire said. “It’s the biggest game of the year.”
Eric Riehl covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]