Eight games into the season, and the No. 12 Cal women’s soccer team has started out strong. It has a record of 6-2-0 and is still unbeaten at home. The icing on the cake, however, has been the brand of aesthetically pleasing soccer that Neil McGuire’s team plays day in and day out.
The Bears’ style resembles European club soccer. The team holds the ball well and looks to dominate possession throughout the course of the game, thereby frustrating its opponents into making mistakes that can be capitalized on. McGuire likes to use the 4-3-3 formation, which is very well suited to a team that likes to possess more of the ball. A formation composed of three central midfielders restricts the area of play for long durations of the game. At the same time, it allows for a high percentage short-passing game that reduces the number of interceptions that one can stack up when long balls are sprayed across the field.
This is exactly where McGuire’s genius comes into play — not only is he able to maintain a high pass completion rate, but he also open up the entire field through his fullbacks. Generally, Heather Walleigh and Haley Lukas start as full-backs. Both players are highly dynamic and are able to drive through with the ball at the wings. Their darting runs also offer options for the midfielders to stretch the area of play, and relieve pressure in the middle of the park, if necessary.
Walleigh and Lukas, in these eight games, have served as excellent tactical options and are a major reason for why the team clicks so well. Lukas also has a strong curling shot that can cause problems for the defense. A curler can be taken in the same way as a cross, so Lukas also has the option of disguising her shot as a cross, which takes opposing defenses by surprise. So far, Lukas has taken five shots, with four of them on target. Walleigh, on the other hand, notched an assist against Texas Tech. She curled the ball in from the right, and star forward Arielle Ship headed it in.
The full-backs get so much area to run directly, primarily because of how McGuire utilizes his three forwards. In a fashion reminiscent of Rinus Michels’ totaalvoetbal, the front trio of Ship, Ifeoma Onumonu and Abigail Kim is able to exchange positions during the course of the game. This helps the forward line confound its markers and be able to maintain a fluid shape up front at the same time. Ship drops a bit deeper into the hole between the midfield and attack, and the wingers converge to form an attacking triangle, which is capable of breaking up defenses with one-touch passes. This strategy was showcased best in the opening game against Cal Poly, where Ship dropped deep-right, took the ball, moved inward and then threaded a breathtaking ball between the two centerbacks to find Onumonu, who took one touch to shake off her marker and score. The trio has combined to score six goals so far, with Onumonu contributing three, Ship, two and Kim, one.
McGuire’s strategy, however, is built on the solid ball-playing and ball-retaining abilities of the midfield and central defense. Kelly Fitzgerald’s versatility and strong offensive and defensive reading of the game allows her to thrive as the midfield anchor. She is the link between the defense and offense for Cal, and makes the team tick. Think of her as a mix of Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian.
Emma Fletcher is the spark in midfield as her quick feet allow her to evade defenders and invite more numbers on her. This frees up space for other players, and Fletcher is able to either find players with her passing skills or find space to take a shot or two. Miranda Nild is another asset as she possesses the ability to execute strong tackles in order to regain possession. This midfield is complemented by the effective mix of zone and man-marking that Indigo Gibson and Annia Mejia follow. The pair excels at reducing the effective area for opposing players to work with and is able to weed out dangerous attacking moves.
That being said, Cal’s strategy does make it vulnerable to counterattacks considering the fullbacks’ forays up front. In their first loss to Santa Clara, the Bears conceded a goal when they had committed too many numbers up front. Similarly, Samantha Dion’s goal against Cal in the St. Mary’s matchup happened when Dion received a lofted ball to break the offside trap. If McGuire can utilize rolling substitutions to shift between a flat back four and wing-backs, he might be able to cut the frequency of such goals.
Overall, McGuire’s brand of soccer is not only easy on the eye, but also very effective. His team is anchored well around the likes of Fitzgerald, Gibson and Ship. Cal has started the season on a promising note, and a few tactical tweaks and experiments here and there might help in leading the team to the Pac-12 crown.