No. 1 Cal men’s soccer registers miraculous comeback victory at No. 6 UCLA

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Senior captain Steve Birnbaum stepped up to the penalty mark with the Cal men’s soccer team’s No. 1 ranking hanging in the balance. His Bears were down 2-1 with only 14 minutes remaining on the road against No. 6 UCLA.

Earlier in the game, Birnbaum and his fellow center defender Christian Dean had made costly mistakes that resulted in two Bruin goals. He needed to make up for his mistake — he wanted this shot.

“We have several guys who can take penalties, but Steve was dialed in,” said coach Kevin Grimes.

The captain calmly stepped up to the ball and struck it hard and true, center right and past the UCLA keeper. Just like that, the game was tied 2-2.

The Bruins were shocked, having dominated possession throughout the game. The Bears took the momentum and ran with it, scoring 32 seconds into the golden-goal overtime off the foot of forward Stefano Bonomo, escaping Westwood with the huge 3-2 win.

“Our players showed their heart today,” Grimes said. “They have the ability to overcome odds which don’t look so great in the moment.”

The scoring began in the 13th minute when UCLA (7-3-1, 2-1-0) exploited the first big mistake by the Cal defense. Birnbaum and Dean lost their marks on a UCLA cross, allowing Bruin Victor Chavez to slip right in front of the six-yard box. Chavez flicked the ball past the outstretched arms of keeper Justin Taillole, and for the second time in two games, the Bears (9-0-2, 3-0-1) found themselves behind first.

“We had yet to realize what they were doing,” Grimes said. “We had to keep tighter on our men.”

A mere five minutes later, Dean stepped up to a free kick outside the 18-yard box and scored off a deflection.

Despite being tied at 1-1, UCLA controlled the pace of play in the first frame and delivered a huge blow three minutes before halftime. Another miscommunication on the back line left a wide-open Bruin a mere two yards away from the goal, putting UCLA back up by one.

The start of the second half looked identical to the end of the first, with UCLA dominating possession and forcing the Bears to chase more than attack.

In the 75th minute, Christian Dean made the game-changing play to set up the Birnbaum penalty. Singlehandedly, Dean ran from the left back position, beat multiple defenders one on one and powered a shot on net. Although it was blocked, it created a corner kick during which the Bruins were penalized for a handball, awarding Cal a penalty kick.

Birnbaum executed under pressure, and the score was tied.

The overtime period ended just as quickly as it began. Midfielder Connor Hallisey, who had been subbed out early in the game, took a ball wide and saw Bonomo streaking toward the net. Hallisey delivered a low cross, and Bonomo pushed the golden goal past the UCLA keeper, giving Cal its third overtime win this season.

On the verge of a huge upset, the Bruins were suddenly watching the Bears mob Bonomo, thinking back to the handball penalty that flipped the game upside down. In a game in which UCLA took advantage of Cal’s massive defensive breakdowns, Cal’s two impact players, Dean and Birnbaum, put the Bears on their back.

“(Dean and Birnbaum) were not happy with the two goals, but they came back in a big way today,” Grimes said.

Austin Crochetiere covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].