No. 4 Cal men’s soccer loses Pac-12 title to No. 3 Washington on last-second goal

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When the ball from Washington’s signature flip throw-in landed in the Cal men’s soccer 6-yard box in overtime at No. 2 Washington, defender Steve Birnbaum’s presence was missed more than ever.

The No. 4 Bears played the entire game without their senior captain, who sprained his ankle in a 3-0 victory at Oregon State on Friday.

Birnbaum, who normally controls the box with his prowess in the air, could only watch as Husky forward Mason Robertson emerged from the scramble in front of the Cal net and tapped home the game-winner a mere 37 seconds into extra time.

“Birnbaum absolutely could have made a difference on that play,” said coach Kevin Grimes. “He could have made a difference in the whole game.”

As Washington celebrated the 2-1 victory, the Bears (12-3-2, 6-2-1 Pac-12) saw the Pac-12 title fall through their hands. With the win, the Huskies (13-1-4, 6-1-2) vaulted into first place in the conference, leaving the Bears looking to their Wednesday match against Stanford and the postseason for retribution.

Grimes had to make major adjustments to account for Birnbaum’s injury, sliding starting midfielder Alec Sundly to center defense and starting bench player Bobby Sekine at midfield.

There were certainly growing pains as the Bears tried to make the unfamiliar roster work against the No. 2 team in the country. The Huskies created many opportunities in the beginning of the game, and the Bears’ defense often found itself scrambling to avert the danger.

“We needed to get settled in with the new lineup with Birnbaum being out,” Grimes said. “It took at least 20 minutes for us to find our rhythm.”

But once the Bears found their rhythm, they were able to break out offensively and net the first goal. In a similar fashion to Birnbaum, Sundly came up from center back on a corner kick and headed home the first goal to give Cal a 1-0 lead in the 39th minute.

But then the Husky onslaught began. After halftime, the Huskies came out hungry for the equalizer, playing overly aggressively and sending many players forward on each attack.

“They were throwing caution into the wind, throwing numbers forward,” Grimes said. “We definitely did not bunker in; we just held steady.”

In the 60th minute, Washington hit the woodwork after a stretch of constant pressure. Although Sundly tried to rally his troops and hold the line, the Huskies were able to break through in the 62nd minute off a header, tying the game at 1-1.

After the equalizer, the game evened out as the Washington attack let up. In fact, the Bears’ best chances in the second half came late in the game. Forwards Nick Lima and Omid Jalali both had shots from point-blank after the 70th minute, but the Bears could not find the back of the net.

It would take overtime to decide the winner — but only 37 seconds of it. Roberton’s goal ended the Bears’ hope of escaping Seattle with a tie or even a win and therefore the Pac-12 title.

Now the Bears will try to avoid the questions. What if captain Birnbaum had been healthy enough to play: Would he been able to head the ball away on that play? What if the Bears had not collapsed in the second half of conference play: Would they still be No. 1 in the country and in line for the Pac-12 title?

“The team knew they had a chance at the Pac-12 title, but it didn’t happen,” Grimes said. “Yet we were down our best player and gave a tremendous effort on the road. You just have to look at the positives.”

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