Bears face road trip test at UCSB

Lorenzo Dela Cruz/Staff

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NCAA Division I soccer went crazy last weekend. The soccer gods cast their gaze across the US, had a quick laugh and played every Uno reverse, skip and draw four card they could find. Twenty-three teams in the United Soccer Coaches top 25 changed their ranking.

This speaks to the volatile and unpredictable nature of the sport.

“You see a lot of games where teams end up dominating and outplay, outshoot and sometimes end up tying or actually losing those games in soccer,” said Cal men’s soccer head coach Kevin Grimes.

This could both help and hinder the Bears, who have high hopes but have struggled to finish games and goals.

“Finishing, timing of your runs into the box, that’s the most difficult thing to do in soccer,” Grimes pointed out. “We have to get the final end product sharpened up a little bit. We have to keep working towards that as the season progresses.”

Chaos atop the college soccer pyramid could be the perfect storm for this young, confident Cal squad. It could also be their demise.

This is a team that has consistently stated that its aim is to win the Pac-12 (which contains a Stanford team ranked No. 4 in the nation) and a national championship, but is still largely untested.

The Bears went toe-to-toe with a then-ranked UC Irvine squad, coming to a draw.

“The game could have easily gone our way on Sunday,” Grimes said. “We played well enough to win, we didn’t win, but we played well enough to win.”

But UC Irvine was coming off a tough loss to now-No. 8 Saint Mary’s and was in the latter half of a tough, two-game road trip.

Cal’s next challenge will be a step up, as they travel down the coast this weekend to take on fellow public school UC Santa Barbara in a difficult atmosphere.

“It’s a fun environment, though,” Grimes said. “It’s just another test to make sure you play good tough road games, because you’ll have more road games as the season progresses.”

The Gauchos are infamous for their great collegiate teams of yore and have a 2006 national championship to show for it. UC Santa Barbara is no longer the mecca of college football, kicking off this season with a 1-1 record.

But travels to the aptly named Harder Stadium still bring their challenges, with the loud, tortilla-throwing UCSB fans known for their devotion to their soccer team. The Gauchos will surely want to finish this homestand on a positive note as they look to equal and surpass last season’s winning record.

This will be a test for Cal and their last away match before conference play.

As mentioned earlier, the Bears have struggled with scoring goals and finishing opportunities, but defensive errors have also been nearly catastrophic. Cal’s play in the back has, for the most part, been a strength. The back four of Christopher Grey, Simon Lekressner, Ian Lonergan and JJ Foe Nuphaus have been unquestionably solid, but mistakes from goalies Drake Callender and Noah Texter almost cost the Bears an opening day victory against Omaha and was largely the reason for their draw against UC Irvine.

These problems largely solve each other. If Cal can score more, then a couple of mistakes are tolerable, even if they aren’t desired. If the Bears can keep clean sheets, then they can win every game 1-0. A win, after all, is a win.

Keeping a shutout will likely be on the mind of Callender, who will start in goal for Cal after being called up to the US U-23 national team’s training camp. Callender and Texter have been alternating starts in goal, as they have both proven their ability.

The rest of the Bears’ starting eleven is likely to resemble the squad that was fielded against UC Irvine.

“I don’t know if a lot of additional changes are needed,” Grimes said.

Goal scorers Tommy Williamson, who has just returned from injury, and Paolo Carrillo-Weisenburger, a freshman, have certainly made cases for an established place in the starting lineup, and it remains to be seen what hand Grimes will play.

“We’ll play whoever is performing at their best. That’s the key right now, whoever is playing at a good level, in good form, they’re going to play,” Grimes said.

Cal will take their next step of 2019 against the Gauchos in what should be a difficult, but not overwhelming, road trip. Can the Bears live up to their own expectations? Do the soccer gods have wild cards up their sleeves? With chaos in control, can Cal take the reins of its own destiny?

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