Cal women’s soccer to take on Cal Poly during season opener

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New season. New faces. New goals.

No. 18 Cal women’s soccer begins its season Friday with a home game against Cal Poly. The 2016 season will be one in which the Bears look to improve on their performances from last year, and make it all the way into the NCAA Tournament.

Cal had a very strong 2015-16 season in which it notched a record of 13-7-3, and with Edwards Stadium as their fortress, the Bears had an 8-3-0 record at home. Away matches, however, brought about mixed results as Cal won five, lost four and drew three.

Much of Cal’s success last year came through the devastating offensive firepower of the team. The Bears scored 39 goals, seven of which came in the routing of UCLA. The offense was spearheaded by then-junior Arielle Ship, who scored 14 goals last campaign and earned herself the Pac-12 Player of the Year award. Ship’s finishing and composure in the box will be crucial to Cal’s success in the coming season, with Ship herself being on the Hermann Award watch list.

“I think she is a big asset for the team,” said redshirt senior Ifeoma Onumonu. “Her scoring ability is something we absolutely need. Going in, I will try to do everything possible to make her successful as a teammate. I am looking forward to how she will fare in this season.”

While Ship and Onumonu will be taking care of the scoring department, they will be relying on the creativity of their midfielders for scoring chances. Cal will need to make a marked improvement on their defensive game, however, as the team conceded 16 goals last season.

“One of the biggest things that we got penalized on last year was set pieces,” Onumonu said. “We need to stay organized while defending them and stay committed to defending the ball.”

Coach Neil Mcguire is expected to use the 4-3-3 formation in order to bring the best out of this team. Considering the offensive efficiency of forwards like Ship, Onumonu and Miranda Nild, this system will play to their strengths and will look to maximize the forwards’ output. The formation allows space for the midfielders to work with and move forward to attacking positions if necessary. The same space can be costly, however, as the three-man midfield is slim and can be overrun, especially in counterattacks, which in turn will put greater pressure on the defenders.

Another major strategic tactic that Cal will have to encounter is teams that will ‘park the bus’ and counterattack. Many inferior teams tend to put numbers at the back and defend and then try to counter to score a goal. Against a slim midfield catering to offensive players, counterattacking can be dangerous.

“If a team is going to sit at the back and rely on the counterattack, then it is punishing for them really,” Onumonu said. “We might take some shots from the 18 in these situations, and they can’t sit back there. We have good shooters who are capable of scoring those goals.”

Cal’s freshman class will complement the upperclassmen on the squad. The blend of experience and fresh faces will be critical for Cal to formulate in-game strategies and go on about executing them. Cal added six freshmen this year, and they will be hoping to make their mark. The class has three youth internationals in the form of Mia Corbin (USA), Abigail Kim (USA) and Avery Lakeman (Canada). While Corbin and Kim are attackers, Lakeman is a classic box-to-box midfielder with an impressive work rate on both ends of the field. Tactically, she can be used to drop deep and start plays from the midfield, or to add an extra defensive player in the fray while the other team has possession.

Cal Poly drew with the Bears the last time they met in the regular season. The match was one characterized by defensive organization by both teams as they did not allow too many clear-cut chances. Cal will be expecting something similar when the Mustangs visit Edwards Stadium. The attacking midfielders such as Emma Fletcher will be critical in unlocking the Mustangs’ tightly packed defense. Left-back Indigo Gibson could play an important role, too, by marauding down the flank and whipping crosses into the box.

On Sunday, the Bears will travel to face Santa Clara. The last encounter ended in a 1-0 win for the Bears with Samantha Wittemann breaking the deadlock in the 61st minute. While Wittemann has graduated, her presence as a big-game player will be missed in this matchup as well as the whole season.

“The first games are very important,” Onumonu said. “The teams are beatable and the matches will give us an idea where we are at the beginning.”

Overall, Cal looks set to have a big season, and this time they will be looking to end the post-season disappointment. The Bears haven’t progressed past the second round stage for the last two years but this year, with Ship expected to hit fine form, could prove to be very different for Cal.

“Winning the Pac-12 is our major goal,” Onumonu said. “We hit our peak just at the right time and this will be important in gaining the Pac-12 crown. We have the team to do it.”

Devang Prasad covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DevangPrasad.