Contenders or pretenders? Cal men’s soccer host Omaha ahead of unpredictable season

Taylor Davila/Courtesy

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People love surprises. That is, in a way, what makes games so interesting. Anything can happen. What we take at face value in a competition can be completely washed away in a matter of seconds. The greatest moments in sports come with the miraculous, when the expected is completely obliterated by the unbelievable.

That is, perhaps, what makes soccer so intriguing. It is one of the few games where face value can mean nothing. It is one of the few sports where the team that plays the best on the field routinely fails to win. You can’t win without luck, and Lady Luck is a fickle mistress. A soccer game is as much a question of what would have happened as it is a question of what did happen.

The Cal men’s soccer team is a walking, breathing example of that complex lack of face value. Last year saw this team finish with a losing record and place second to last in the Pac-12. The Bears have also lost two of their highest goalscorers: Sam Ebstein and Shinya Kadono. Ebstein scored three goals, and Kadono led the Pac-12 with a whopping 12 scores.

One would be forgiven for having low expectations, but Cal men’s soccer possesses none.

“Our goal is first to win the Pac-12, and ultimately to win a national championship,” boldly stated Taylor Davila, midfielder. “That’s our ultimate goal and that’s what we’re trying to do this season.”

That would be a massive jump for a young Bears squad in a conference that includes national heavyweights, No. 5 ranked Stanford and rising power, No. 22 Oregon State. Still, this team is wholeheartedly committed to the cause, coach included.

“They have full control of their season and any thought, any dream that they have is absolutely achievable,” stated the Bears’ head coach Kevin Grimes. “They’re ambitious and they should be.”

Now that’s a great attitude, but it is just an attitude. Anyone can aim for a championship, but not everyone can win one. This is a squad that lost their best striker in Kadono and is predicted to finish 4th in the Pac-12 in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll.

But this is a sport where face value can mean very little, and there are sure reasons for optimism that seems to be running so deeply in this 2019 Bears team.

Cal finished 2018 with two road wins, including a shutout victory over the then No. 6 ranked rival Stanford Cardinal and eight of their nine losses came by just one goal, with three of those losses coming in overtime.

Grimes points to the youth movement he has started at Edwards Stadium: “We might have been the only team in the nation last year to start five freshman every game.”

That youth and inexperience hurt the Bears last season, leading to a six-game losing streak and what was ultimately a lost season. Under the surface, much more was afoot.

“It’s paid massive dividends,” Grimes said of last season’s use of young players. “The guys that have come back from last year, they look like veterans. They’re looking stronger, fitter, sharper on the ball. None of that would have happened if we didn’t take that risk last year and put them out. It was baptism by fire.”

He could well be right. Taylor Davila, a sophomore who started all 18 games in his freshman season, was a rock in the center of the park in Cal’s exhibition game against San Jose State on Saturday. Davila picked up a goal and an assist while dominating on the ball.

Davila is one of just a few players who are starting their second year with plenty of experience. Centerbacks JJ Foe Nuphaus and Ian Lonergan were nigh unbeatable in that same exhibition match with San Jose State.

These underclassmen are complemented by a host of talented and experienced upperclassmen. Goalkeepers Drake Callender and Noah Texter won second- and third-team Pac-12 all-conference honors respectively after splitting time in goal. One would be hard-pressed to find a better goalkeeping setup.

There are still holes for the Bears to fill. The loss of star striker Kadono hurts.

“At this point the guys have been scoring by committee,” Grimes conceded when asked about his team’s striker situation.

A go-to striker has yet to appear for this squad, and throughout their exhibition game against San Jose State, Cal struggled to finish opportunities and set up goals in open play. While the defense is a real strength, the Bears seem overly reliant on quick counterattacks created from turnovers.

The midfield proved to be a strong-tackling, dynamic threat — often taking the ball and turning it back upfield — but there is no threat up the middle. Cal attacked the wings but lacked a finishing touch in the box, and both goals in the 2-0 preseason win came off set pieces.

“We need to be finishing those chances,” Davila stated after the game.

The Bears may be close to a solution. Grimes believes that his team’s essential striker will appear as the season matures. Jonathan Estrada and Arman Samimi started in the attack against the Spartans, and Samimi in particular looked dangerous with his direct, strong play.

Cal will have to figure things out fast, as they host Omaha on Friday to open their season. The Mavericks have no question marks at striker. Three of their top four scorers from last season return for this opening game.

Junior Diego Gutierrez had a breakout 2018, tallying 7 goals and 7 assists, and he should be Omaha’s biggest threat. The Bears will need to shut him down to get a positive result, but if Lonergan, Foe Nuphaus and Davila can hold the middle of the park then that shouldn’t be an issue.

Most seasons are, at some level, relatively easy to predict. One can chart a rudimentarily accurate path forward for the team in question. Cal gives no such luxury. 

This is a team that thinks it can win a national championship while others expect a fourth-place conference finish. Pragmatism clashes with romanticism as the Bears kick off their season against Omaha, and it is difficult not to call this Cal team slightly — if not entirely — delusional.

Then again, this is a sport where face value can mean so very little. This season’s end is truly a mystery and that creates a sense of anticipation and intrigue that should not be taken lightly. Are the Bears contenders or pretenders? It is a question that only time and play can answer.

Jasper Sundeen is the assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].