No. 1 Cal remains unbeaten after thrilling win over Stanford

Carlos Caceres/Staff

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Cal (10-0-2, 4-0-1 Pac-12) versus Stanford (6-4-2, 1-3-1 Pac-12), the big rivalry — you could cut through the atmosphere with a knife. The tension was palpable in Edwards Stadium as the Cal men’s soccer team hosted its largest crowd this season.

The Bears began the game with intent, passing the ball quickly and setting up strong attacking positions in the box. This solid start, however, was nipped in the bud by an aggressive Stanford team.

The ensuing 30 minutes of the first half were a tit-for-tat game, with possession changing hands at regular intervals. This back and forth, while demonstrating some skillful soccer from both sides, was largely played on the halfway line with both teams struggling to break the opposition’s defense.

“It was difficult to break Stanford down,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “They did a good job of sitting back and locking things down.”

A rare foray into the penalty box came from Cal forward Nick Lima, with an impressive individual performance to get from halfway to outside the penalty box. The strike that followed was a searing shot that just rebounded off the crossbar.

While the second half was just as tightly contested as the first, both teams were breaking through the defense more regularly — Stanford placed 11 of its 14 shots in the latter period.

As the clock continued to tick down, things started to heat up. The physicality of Stanford’s game came to the fore, and Cal, intent on matching up to the opposition in every sector, fought just as hard.

“They’re going to come out physical and we’re going to come out physical — it’s the rivalry,” said defender Christian Dean.

The competition between these traditional rivals was evident in the rate of the umpire’s whistle. Both teams were being blown up at an alarming rate, and a yellow card for Cal at 76 minutes nearly sparked a fight. The teams were playing at full throttle, and it seemed only natural that this aggression would culminate in some extracurricular activity.

“It was always going to be tough against Stanford,” said defender Steve Birnbaum. “They’re pretty physical, but we battled through.”

With each thrust into the penalty box and unsuccessful shot the intensity increased. There was an undeniable feeling that the next goal would be the only goal and the match-winner.

It came with just five minutes to go when Lima was fouled in the box, leading to the most important decision of the game — a penalty. Co-captain and leading goal-scorer Birnbaum stepped up to mark and fired. A save, but one that was quickly rectified by Birnbaum as he cleared up the rebound and buried the ball in the netting. He scored, and Cal won.

“Luck was on my side for that penalty,” Birnbaum said.

The match was always going to be hotly contested, and it seems only fitting that it would end on such a dramatic note. Cal against Stanford promised a contest, and a contest it was.

Daniella Mogilner covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].