Bears’ shutdown defense to be put to the test against UC Irvine and Santa Clara

Cheyenne Tex/Staff

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that flashy play and attacking flair draws higher ratings than nitty-gritty defensive work. Acrobatic one-handed touchdown grabs and three-pointers drained from well beyond the arc will be in the papers tomorrow, and that fact reflects the state of sports today.

Association football is no exception.

In 2006, Fabio Cannavaro became only the third defender ever to win the Ballon d’Or — football’s most prestigious individual award — in its 63 years of existence. Cannavaro’s World Cup-winning Italian side shut out opponents in five of seven matches and conceded only two goals during the entire tournament. Italy’s forwards and midfielders disrupted play with continuous defensive pressure in the opposition half.

It’s an honorable, but unlikely, comparison — shades of the 2006 Azzurri side can be found in this season’s Cal women’s soccer team.

The Bears’ defense is on a run of five consecutive clean sheets, and wunderkind freshman keeper Angelina Anderson has rejected the few opportunities that Cal’s opponents have had on goal. Outside of the 18-yard box, no one has shied away from their defensive duties. Attackers have consistently tracked back to support midfielders and forced errant passes out of opposing defenders.

Fans can only hope that Cal’s high-energy pressing will remain unaffected by fatigue as the season wears on, but as of now the Bears are a defensive juggernaut from keeper to forward. Cal is one of two teams in all of Division 1 soccer that has not conceded a goal this season.

In search of its sixth and seventh consecutive clean sheets, Cal will face UC Irvine away this Friday and return home for a match against nearly ranked Santa Clara on Sunday.

The Anteaters come into their match with Cal sporting an unimpressive 1-5 record, but their schedule has been far from kind to them. UC Irvine has had the misfortune of losses to No. 5 UCLA, No. 9 Vanderbilt and No. 4 Virginia — dropping a 7-0 blowout to the Cavaliers.

A visit to Irvine might be just what Cal needs for a final offensive tune-up before Santa Clara. Five different Bears have combined for 13 goals thus far, and midfielder Emma Westin leads the bunch with five, including two last Friday against San Diego.

The last time the Bears played the Anteaters was in 2017, when an Abi Kim brace led Cal to a 2-1 win at Edwards Stadium. Both Kim and Westin will be expected to play this week, although head coach Neil McGuire will show no hesitation in resting them for Sunday, should the Bears build a commanding lead. Kickoff for the UC Irvine match will be at 5:00 p.m. Friday.

Two years ago, the Bears eked past then-No. 24 Santa Clara 2-1 behind a penalty conversion at the death by redshirt senior Kelly Fitzgerald — but the Broncos would get revenge in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Just three minutes into the match, Cal defender Indigo Gibson was sent off. The shorthanded Bears kept their attack going with a goal, but Santa Clara capitalized on the extra player to break Cal hearts in a 2-1 win.

A miraculous 2-0 upset of No. 5 UCLA a week ago serves to solidify the threat that the resurgent Broncos pose to the Bears. Santa Clara will play Arizona on Friday and currently owns a 3-3 record; their matchup with Cal will be televised on the Pac-12 networks and kick off is at 3 p.m. this Sunday at Edwards Stadium.

The Italian men’s national team of 13 years ago had the privilege of being funded and backed by a nation. This Bears squad does not have that luxury, but they have an identical hard-nosed defensive mentality and the skills to back it up.

If they play to their potential this weekend, they can win once again.

Chanun Ong covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].