No. 18 Cal women’s soccer splits pair of matches to open season

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Freshly mown grass, laced up cleats and sliding tackles. The season of the beautiful game is officially upon us. No. 18 Cal women’s soccer had a lukewarm start to the season, with a 1-0 win over Cal Poly at home and then an overtime loss at No. 21 Santa Clara, 1-0.

Head coach Neil McGuire deployed the team in a 4-3-3 formation against Cal Poly. While the first 10 minutes progressed with both teams getting into the rhythm of the game, it was in the 13th minute that the Mustangs’ goalie, Sophia Brown was tested by a shot from Cal left back Haley Lukas.

Brown facing tests from Cal players went on to be the theme of the match through the 90 minutes played as the Cal Poly goalkeeper produced a performance for the ages, making 10 saves.

Cal was the dominant team throughout the match. It held possession for the majority of the game and had significantly more shots than Cal Poly — 24 to three. The Bears, in the first half, utilized a lot of wing play to build up their attacks. Wingers Ifeoma Onumonu and Abigail Kim were in the thick of Cal’s build up play, and were ably supported by the fullbacks, especially Lukas.

Lukas gave brilliant supporting runs to stretch out the Mustangs’ back line, and this created chances for Cal. Onumonu came very close to scoring in the 23rd minute, with her shot deflecting off the post. A minute later, Cal Poly conceded a penalty through a handball and up stepped forward Arielle Ship to take it. Ship shot the ball low to her right, but Brown anticipated it and turned it away. Ship would again come close to scoring in the 34th minute when she cut inside from the right, wrong-footed a defender and curled a shot with her left. She hit the crossbar.

“Our goal at halftime was to try and become as stretched as possible so that we had a lot of width in our play, both outside backs and outside forwards,” McGuire said. “This allowed our midfield players to play better. Our players made good adjustments and they were patient. Goals will come if you are patient.”

The strategy seemed to work in the second half as Cal’s midfielders, especially Emma Fletcher, became more influential in proceedings. This paid dividends in the 63nd minute, as Onumonu broke the deadlock with a beautiful goal. Ship got the ball on the right, just outside the box, and gradually moved in toward the center. Onumonu made an incisive run from the left to lay on an exquisite first touch on the gorgeous ball Ship threaded between Cal Poly’s center backs, setting herself up to score.

“We had had a lot of opportunities in the game already,” Onumonu said. “I knew I had to execute. … So yeah, it feels good to have scored the first goal of the season.”

For all of Cal’s dominance in the match, the team could have been more clinical up front. A single goal from 24 shots is a paltry return, but considering it was the first match of the season, one can allow for some leeway.

The game against Santa Clara started slowly with Cal having a slight advantage early in the game. The Bears had four shots before the break and were able to test the Broncos’ goalie, Melissa Lowder, with three of them.

The second half saw some back and forth play with both sides having great chances to break the deadlock. Cal’s inventive wing play was again seen when Kim darted from the right to lay off the ball for Miranda Nild, whose first-time shot was expertly saved by Lowder. On the other end, Cal goalie Emily Boyd made some very impressive saves including one when she tipped a strong long range shot. Boyd had a strong showing in goal with three crucial saves throughout the match.

“Emily is a fantastic goalkeeper,” McGuire said. “She came up big with a number of important blocks. Unfortunately, she couldn’t get her fingertips on the final shot. Her distribution was perfect too and was the catalyst for many of our attacks.”

It was in the 107th minute that Santa Clara’s midfield strung together some accurate passes to open up Cal’s defense. Jordan Jesolva sent in a ball past the defense to the feet of Jenna Roering, who tucked it to the bottom right corner and won the game for the Broncos.

It’s still very early in the season to make conclusions about the Bears. The first few games after a long offseason are bound to be rusty.

“It is a long season,” McGuire said. “We’ll be patient and we’ll be calm. Our focus now is on recovery, and we are looking forward to taking on New Mexico and Portland.”

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