Cal men’s soccer takes aim at UCLA and SDSU to start conference play

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There’s a Californian rivalry brewing this weekend at Edwards Stadium, as Cal men’s soccer plays host to two Southern California teams in the team’s first matches of Pac-12 conference play.

The 4-2-2 Bears will face the 4-3 UCLA Bruins on Thursday. Given a little less than a quick 72 hours to recover, the team will seek to capture another crucial W against the 4-2-1 San Diego State University Aztecs on Sunday.

Last week, the Golden Bears battled through an overtime against Santa Clara in which they were unable to return to the win column. Despite downfield cohesiveness between Cal’s midfield and forward players, team chemistry has fallen to lack of consistency, as Cal has only come away with one win in the past four games.

Yet all is not lost for the Golden Bears, as the squad’s synergy established its leading 1.88 goals per game this season entering conference play. Furthermore, individual talent within the team is on full display, as senior midfielder Shinya Kadono earned the Pac-12 Player of the Week honor Tuesday — the second of this season and the third of his career.  Nationally, Kadono ranks fifth with 8 goals this season and sixth in goals per game.

Holding down the defensive third, junior goalie Drake Callender will go into Thursday’s match with the league-leading 24 saves and second-place .706 save percentage.

Callender will face a worthy challenger in the Bruins’ junior forward Mohammed Kamara, a first-year transfer who trails Kadono in second place in the Pac-12 for goals scored over the season and who is ranked 40th in the country for his 0.67 goals per game average.

While the Bruins have dropped their last three matches to the Golden Bears in the past few years, Thursday’s game will be the first test of the viability of Cal’s playoff contest, as UCLA was picked to finish third in the Preseason Pac-12 Coaches Poll, compared to Cal’s predicted fourth-place finish.

The now unranked UCLA, however, has also been plagued by inconsistency after dropping from No. 15 because of a series of losses, most recently losing 3-1 against UCSB. What UCLA lacks in consistency, senior defenseman Erik Holt provides in backline stability. Holt, named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List for outstanding male player of the year at the beginning of the season, has already produced three assists and three shots on goal this season.

Cal’s young squad, with eight of its players entering their first season of collegiate soccer, will also be tested against UCLA’s recruiting class of four ranked players, deemed the 2018 best recruiting class by Top Drawer Soccer. UCLA’s offensive movement has been improving, as freshman midfielders Frankie Amaya and Matt Hundley have aided UCLA’s ball control, flushing passes to Kamara.

The Bears’ hopefully strong showing to be displayed Thursday will need to be quickly replicated against SDSU on Sunday. Redshirt junior midfielder Pablo Pelaez leads the team with four goals and ranks second in the Pac-12 at 1.43 points per game.

The Aztecs are currently running with four straight victories, though an intermediate match against Stanford in Palo Alto on Thursday could soften them up before they move on to Berkeley. Leading the Pac-12 in corner kicks per game, their strategic set plays from the side of the net could prove lethal against the Bears, who have displayed vulnerability in that area this season.

Cal’s defense, missing freshman J.J. Foe Nuphaus, who has been called to the U.S. U-19 National Team, will depend on players such as freshman Ian Lonergan and sophomore Christopher Grey to hold the back line and freshman Taylor Davila and senior Halil Beqaj to push the ball forward.

As these games are critical to Cal’s deep playoff berth, the Golden Bears will seek to finish the weekend undefeated in conference play.

Alicia Sadowski covers men’s soccer. Contact her at [email protected].