Five short weeks ago, the No. 7 Cal men’s soccer team was depleted. An exhausting four days on the road had left the team 0-2 in their opening weekend of Pac-12 conference play against Washington and Oregon State.
“We certainly had some energy depletion that weekend for a number of reasons,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “We were right in the middle of midterms. We had our players, several of them, take one or two midterms on the road, which are really tough circumstances … just a bad combination.”
The combination left the Bears slow out on the pitch in the Northwest, ultimately resulting in a disastrous 6-2 loss to an unranked Oregon State team in Corvallis, Oregon, on Oct. 5. Expectations for the Bears to take the Pac-12 title quickly dwindled.
But fast forward a little more than a month, and the Bears (10-3-1, 4-2-1 Pac-12) return home to Berkeley as a top contender for the conference championship, tied with No. 3 Washington for second place with 13 points, just behind No. 8 UCLA at 17. The Bears will attempt to place themselves ahead in the running as they return to Edwards Stadium for a rematch against Oregon State (9-6-1, 2-4-1) on Friday and Washington (11-3-1, 4-2-1) on Sunday.
The last time the Bears matched up against the Beavers, Cal had trouble fending off the two towering 6-foot-3 forwards in Khiry Shelton and Timmy Mueller. Shelton and Mueller were terrors coming down the pitch, and both managed to best Bears goalkeeper Alex Mangels for three goals apiece.
This time around, the Bears will likely be armed with redshirt senior keeper Justin Taillole, who is 9-1-1 this season and earned his third shutout of the year against UCLA on Sunday.
The Bears also return home in one of the best possible positions, undefeated in their last five matches and leading the nation in scoring with 2.64 goals per game and three assists per game. On Sunday, the Bears defeated then-No.1 UCLA, 1-0, handing the Bruins their first home loss of the season and sweeping the team for the first time since 2006.
The Bears completed the emotional upset after a lone goal from senior and midfielder Connor Hallisey put Cal atop in the 47th minute of play. The Bears will desperately need Hallisey this weekend as they face off against a high shooting team like Washington.
“We know that this only means we have to work harder the rest of the season,” Hallisey said. “So now there’s expectations about us and how good of a team we are. So we have to live up to those expectations.”
The six-team Pac-12 is the No. 1-ranked RPI conference in Division I soccer with four out of the six teams landing in the top 10 of the nation. The four teams have swiveled positions throughout the past month, with No. 3 Washington finally taking the top ranking, while UCLA still leads the conference standings with 17 points. The Bears desperately need to sweep the next three games in order to have a secure shot at earning the Pac-12 title.
“Well, I guess it’s down to math at this point (for the championship), so you know, it would just be depending on how these next three games go,” Grimes said. “You know, if a Pac-12 championship is in your fate, it’s in your fate.”
Christine Menchaca covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]