On Sept. 24, not much separated the Cal men’s soccer team from the third best program in the country.
Enjoying a five-game winning streak, the Bears had just clawed their way back into the top 20, midfielder Jose Carrera-Garcia had recently been named the Pac-12 Player of the Week, and their defense had given up only two goals in its last four matches. With one game left before the beginning of Pac-12 play, Cal’s impending matchup with Santa Clara looked more like a final stepping stone than a potential threat.
One week later, and the Bears are in a much different position as they welcome No. 3 Stanford to Edwards Stadium for their conference season opener. After a 2-1 loss to the Broncos on the road last weekend, Cal (5-2-0) now faces the Cardinal (7-1-0) this Sunday with some glaring blemishes on its record and a need to reassert itself as a top-25 squad.
“We felt like we started the game extremely well against Santa Clara. The first 20 to 25 minutes, we perhaps played the best soccer we played the entire year, and had a one-nothing lead,” said Cal head coach Kevin Grimes. “We really just want to work on trying to maintain that level and just continue to push each other to play at that level for all 90 minutes. I think we’ve learned a good lesson.”
Before Cal’s stumble in Santa Clara, the Bears’ season had not looked too different from that of the Cardinal. While Cal had notched a loss in its first game of the year in San Diego, Stanford had also dropped its season opener on the road to top-25 bubble team Santa Barbara.
But throughout September, both teams appeared dominant — stringing together a series of convincing victories over some of the same nonconference opponents such as Davidson and VCU.
Despite their similarities, the way in which each squad achieved its early success looked quite different. While the Cardinal has logged an average of only 1.5 goals per game, it has been able to rely on a stalwart defense. Stanford has already registered five shutouts this season, and ranks seventh in the country with a goals against average of just .48.
Meanwhile, the Bears currently sit second to last in the Pac-12 in most defensive categories. Though it has seen improvement since last season — when Cal finished last in the conference in goals-against average — the team still has a long way to go before it can compare to some of the other elite defenses it will face in the coming weeks.
The Bears will hope to make up for its defensive shortcomings with what appears to be a slight offensive edge over the Cardinal. Looking at the two squads’ common matchups this year — Northeastern, Davidson, San Francisco and VCU — Cal has outscored Stanford in these games, 12-7. That offensive production has in part come from the efforts of Carrera-Garcia, who is tied for second in the country with six assists, and forward Christian Thierjung, who leads the Bears with four goals this year. Overall, Cal ranks first in the Pac-12 in goals scored per game with an average of 2.14.
“I think we’re a group that knows our capabilities in the attack. We don’t really concentrate a whole lot on the opponent,” Grimes said. “We really keep the focus on ourselves most of the week, and we feel that if we continue to get better as a group from week to week, and focus on improvement and development, no matter who we’re playing, we can put forth an effort that is difficult for the opponent.”
Dani Jo Coony covers women’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected]