When the No. 18 Cal men’s soccer team steps out on to the field at Edwards Stadium this Sunday to begin play in the 2014 NCAA tournament, the team will be banking on a fresh start. Seeded 15th, the Bears are coming off three tough home losses to close out their regular season.
The Bears (10-6-1) hope to reverse the narrative as they play host to either Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville or Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday afternoon in Berkeley. Cal earned a first-round bye heading into the tournament and awaits the results of SIUE and Northwestern’s matchup, set to take place Thursday night in Evanston, Illinois.
The two out-of-conference opponents are relatively unfamiliar competitors for the Bears, who have spent the past two months battling back and forth with Pac-12 teams.
The Bears have not taken on Northwestern (9-3-6) since 2011, in a match that ended in a scoreless draw. This year, the Wildcats came within one point of taking home the Big Ten regular-season championship and have outscored their opponents 22-11.
If the Bears do end up facing off against Northwestern, they will need to figure out how to get past the Wildcats’ strong back line, anchored by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Nikko Boxall and 6-4 senior goalkeeper Tyler Miller. Miller was a unanimous selection to be Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year and leads his conference in goals against average with 0.56. He has recorded nine shutouts for the Wildcats this season, claiming an outstanding .853 save percentage.
If it is SIUE (7-8-4) the Bears take on this weekend, Cal will know a little more of what to expect. Cal defeated the Cougars 2-1 earlier in the season in a hard-fought defensive matchup Sept. 21 in Berkeley. In that game, the Bears held SIUE from scoring until the 77th minute of action, when forward Christian Volesky managed to get around Cal goalkeeper Justin Taillole. It would be the Cougars’ only goal, and Taillole went on to secure the win with five saves. This time, the Bears will likely be without Taillole, who did not play in the Bears’ double overtime loss to Stanford on Sunday and is still suffering from a leg injury he sustained in the Bears’ Nov. 9 loss to Washington.
Still, no matter what team struts out on to the field Sunday afternoon against Cal, the biggest issue will be defense. This season, the Bears have excelled on offense, leading the nation in total assists, assists per game, points per game and total scoring offense. Throughout the season, Cal averaged an impressive 2.59 goals per match for a total of 44 regular-season goals.
On the defensive end, however, a back line that is still recuperating from the exit of a few veteran defenders last season has given up nearly as many goals as the attack offense has scored. On average, the Bears allow 15.5 shots per game with an average of 2.0 goals. This statistic is telltale, as the Bears are last in the Pac-12 in goals against average. In the last three matches against Pac-12 opponents, the Bears have struggled to come back from early deficits given up by their defense.
“At this point in the season, the past does not matter,” senior midfielder Connor Hallisey told Cal Athletics. “It is all about confidence and chemistry, and we have both of those.”