Cal men’s soccer back to winning ways with home wins vs. Nebraska Omaha, Harvard

Michael Wan/Staff

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An aura of indifference permeated through Edwards Stadium on Friday. The Cal men’s soccer program’s supporters were uncustomarily lifeless throughout the first 30 minutes of the Bears’ match against Nebraska Omaha. But the fans couldn’t be blamed for their lack of enthusiasm, as Cal and the Mavericks showcased little to motivate the spectators to jump out of their seats to cheer or bicker about.

The game seemed destined to serve as nothing but an appetizer to Sunday’s marquee fixture between Cal and Harvard. The Bears’ redshirt junior midfielder Jose Carrera-Garcia, however, played a large role in helping prevent his team’s bout against Omaha from becoming an afterthought by propelling Cal to a 2-0 victory Friday.

Carrera-Garcia started the match more intense than usual, and it showed. His impressive dribbling ability, mind-bending passes and clutch interceptions helped him stand out from the pack. And despite his teammates struggling in the initial 30 minutes to get into the rhythm of the game, Carrera-Garcia didn’t let the team’s sluggish start discourage him.

Fortunately for him, Cal head coach Kevin Grimes made momentum-changing substitutions near the last 15 minutes of the first half to capitalize on the redshirt junior’s contributions up top. The change in personnel quickly turned the tide in the Bears’ favor. They benefitted from Carrera-Garcia’s quality service to constantly trouble Omaha’s defenders, who could do nothing but hang on for dear life. Grimes’ men remained relentless, and their hard work paid off in the 61st minute because of Carrera-Garcia’s play.

He got possession in Cal’s box and made his way toward the halfway line, where he passed the ball to junior forward Paul Salcedo. The forward played a through ball inside Omaha’s defensive third to midfielder Aravind Sivakumar, a junior. Sivakumar calmly dribbled around Mavericks goalkeeper Joseph Ghitis and slotted the ball into the back of the net to give his team a 1-0 lead. Grimes’ men later notched the game winner in the 83rd minute off of a penalty kick from senior forward Christian Thierjung.

“The whole team was motivated,” Carrera-Garcia said, explaining that his side’s previous 5-0 loss left them with a chip on their shoulder that they sought to shake off against Omaha. “We showed it tonight. We outshot the team. We out-possessed them. We should have had probably two more, to be honest. But our mentality was defense first and the goals were going to come. And that showed.”

Carrera-Garcia and company carried that mentality into Sunday’s match against Harvard. Cal and Harvard last faced each other before the turn of the century in 1999. The Crimson didn’t pose the Bears much of a threat, as Grimes’ men ran circles around Harvard’s players on both the defense and offense to come out on top, 6-2.

Despite the Crimson doing a great job to keep the Bears from taking a decent shot on goal during the first 20 minutes, Cal didn’t slow down at all and instead kept creating impressive goal scoring opportunities. The Bears’ made a breakthrough in the 26th minute, when Carrera-Garcia played a through ball near the center of Harvard’s backline to Thierjung, who calmly placed it into the back of the net.

That goal wouldn’t be Thierjung’s only one. He put forth a goal-scoring clinic that will raise his chances of being considered for Pac-12 honors this month. The senior scored four more and now leads the Pac-12 in goals scored with seven.

“I always have that mentality that I’m going to score and create goal-scoring chances,” Thierjung said. “I still missed a few. I could have had more today, but you just got to focus on the next play. … We worked very hard today, and they were able to find me at the right place at the right time — shoutout to my teammates for today.”

Although Cal completely dominated the Crimson in every aspect of the game, Grimes’ side still needs to strengthen its defense game to ensure it doesn’t suffer any more defensive lapses against superior competition. Otherwise, the Bears’ chances of getting a hero’s welcome when they return to Berkeley next month from a four-game road stretch will decrease.

Manny Flores covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @manny_0