Cal men’s soccer seeks return to prior form in NCAA Tournament

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The Pac-12 is over, but the NCAA Tournament is just beginning, and the Cal men’s soccer team is looking to put its recent losses behind it and come out on top.

The Bears (12-4-2, 6-3-1 Pac-12) were flagging at the end of the conference season, but with an 11-day rest and a home game to look forward to, the No. 4 Bears are looking to dominate once more.

“There’s a lot of energy this week out in training,” said Steve Birnbaum. “The guys are ready for Sunday. They want to get that feeling back where we are winning.”

Pac-12 scheduling left Cal with three away games in a row, and this less-than-advantageous program was evident on the scoreboard, with two losses for the Bears. Cal also suffered a number of injuries going into these latest games, the most dramatic of these being the loss of veteran defender and top goal-scorer Birnbaum. But the injury count is now at zero once more, and Cal, back at full force, ought to be back to its winning ways.

“Three games in six days on the road did us no favors at all,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “There was just so much fatigue that was setting in for the group. This 11-day break has been awesome.”

The team hosts the winner of a first round match between Northwestern (10-7-3) and Bradley (13-6-2) on Thursday, with the uncertainty of its opponent meaning the Bears will focus on themselves during training this week.

“All week at practice, it’s really been focusing on sharpening our team and getting everybody rested and healthy — recharging the batteries,” Grimes said.

This focus on the Bears rather than their opponent is significant when considering the team has played Northwestern only once, in a match in 2011 that resulted in a 0-0 draw, and has never competed against Bradley. The opposition is somewhat unknown for Cal, and thus on Sunday, the match will about the squad’s individual game and how it plans to execute it.

The NCAA will no doubt be a step up from the Pac-12, with each team having battled for only 48 places in the nation. But Cal deserves its place in this setup — its overall record still better than that of many, including the two teams the Bears may face Sunday.

The Bears also have an added accolade to their achievements — eight of their players earned All-Pac-12 honors. This honor will certainly boost the players’ confidence going into the game, especially considering this is the highest number by any team, surpassing the eight achieved by Stanford and Pac-12 winner Washington.

Cal’s impressive season has given it both a first-round bye and a home advantage for its second-round meeting. This is something the team, which has struggled recently in its away games, will certainly relish.

“It’s always great to play on our home turf, and we’ve been great here this year,” Birnbaum said. “We’re just happy to be at home.”

The caliber of NCAA soccer has heightened the stakes for this season, and the Bears are aware of this pressure. Sunday’s match will be no easy ride for a Cal team that has struggled to find its feet in recent weeks. But with a full team and a home game, the stage is set to give Cal the victory it has been waiting for.

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