“The best defense is a good offense.” This is an adage that, in the case of Cal men’s soccer, ought to be inverted. For the Bears, the best offense is a good defense.
The defenders on the Cal team have been the key to its success. Without the strong presence of veteran defenders such as Steve Birnbaum and Christian Dean, the Bears would be unlikely to be where they are today — seeded fourth in the NCAA and hosting a quarterfinals match. The Cal defense has ensured that its attackers have had the optimal platform from which to play, and — in many cases — the defense has been the one to lead the attack. Birnbaum is the leading goal-scorer for the team, and he finished tied for third in the Pac-12, with 19 points, and ranked second in goals, with nine.
This attacking achievement is also relevant to Birnbaum’s fellow defender Dean, who is second on the team in assists, with four. The towering figures of these players prove crucial in set pieces; it is usually Birnbaum or Dean who steps up to take a chance or header the resulting ball toward the goal.
The importance of players such as Birnbaum is all the more evident when they are absent. Birnbaum was injured in the last two games of the Pac-12 season, and the result was, unsurprisingly, two losses. As a leader and as a player, Birnbaum is paramount to the success of the team as a whole.
“Steve got injured in the last two games … so we had to manipulate the backfield, and we had to manipulate the midfield,” said head coach Kevin Grimes.“The fact that he’s back healthy is a huge lift.”
An observer of any Cal game cannot help but notice that there are typically only four players who remain on the pitch for the full 90 minutes: the defenders. The continuity of these players provides the team with stability, and it is this that enables the midfield and attack to substitute more frequently to maintain players’ freshness.
Throughout the season, Cal’s opposition has found little room in which to attack, and, as a result, the Bears have outshot their competitors by almost 2-1. Taller than any player on the field excluding the goalkeeper, Dean is a comforting presence in the back — always there to clear up mispassed balls or long opposition plays. A bastion on defense, Birnbaum is in the vicinity for every play, ensuring that no one is alone in the box and making sure to guide high balls safely away from danger. The defense as a whole closes down attackers, tracking the ball and making life difficult for strikers.
The rare occasions when the defense has exposed itself to attack have been few and far between. Half of the Bears’ losses came from overtime scores. Cal has never lost by more than one goal, and no opposition has scored more than two goals against the Bears. This accomplishment is even more impressive when considering that no other team in the Pac-12 can boast that kind of statistic. While Cal sometimes fails to convert its chances in the penalty box, when it comes to preventing the opposition’s, the squad is almost always on target.
Cal has had one of its most successful seasons in its history, and while victory in the Pac-12 proved unattainable, the ultimate accolade of a national title is well within reach for this former No. 1 team. A solid defense may be less flashy and attractive than a dynamic attack, but an ugly victory is always more satisfying than a beautiful loss.
Daniella Mogilner covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].