Step up to the frontier: Bears clash with Eagles and Pioneers

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The very best teams cannot afford off days. They perform no matter who they are playing, no matter what the stakes are. It doesn’t matter if everyone is watching or no one is. To reign supreme, you have to win both the big games and the small ones. Champions become champions one step at a time.

This is the test that Cal men’s soccer faces this weekend. The undefeated Bears host American University on Friday evening and Denver on Sunday afternoon. Both of these opponents have yet to win a game.

Cal is seemingly hitting its stride. Early in the season, the Bears struggled with miscues between the goalkeeper and defenders, as well as finishing scoring opportunities. These problems seemed to evaporate in an away 3-0 drubbing of UC Santa Barbara.

The wrinkles are being straightened out and this young team may have found its groove. With two matches against winless opponents this weekend, it would be easy to look ahead to their colossal Pac-12 opener against Stanford.

But looking ahead is exactly what Cal cannot do.

“If you ever try to prepare for two opponents at once, it’s a mess,” said head coach Kevin Grimes.

The Bears are taking this season one game at a time. This young squad has so much to prove, and with big expectations, it would be easy for an inexperienced team to look beyond the seemingly easy games.

But the finest teams play at their best no matter who they play, whether it be a championship contender or an American University team that has only scored one goal thus far this season.

The Eagles have struggled, and that is something that Cal needs to take advantage of.

“On the two-game weekends you can never look to Sunday,” said Grimes. “We’re focusing on ourselves and dialing in.”

Cal has an opportunity to replicate its success against UC Santa Barbara. If the Bears focus as Grimes says they will, they could become even more comfortable with both scoring and defending. This is a golden opportunity to stitch strengths together and show the consistency necessary to win championships.

American University has struggled to put shots on target, and with the Bears’ tenacious defense taking the field, those struggles may only be amplified. Centerbacks JJ Foe Nuphaus and Ian Lonergan, as well as midfielder Taylor Davila, have been able to turn the center of the park into a Cal stomping ground — creating turnovers and stopping opposing attacks in a grind of tackling physical play. The game against American should be no different.

Goalies Drake Callender and Noah Texter have both had mental slips at the back. Although both have been nearly impossible to score on, they also simultaneously give spectators heart trauma from the mistakes they make when the ball is at their feet.

But that can be improved upon. If the starting keeper — who will likely be Texter given Cal’s goalie rotations — can concentrate and bring his best game, then this problem could become a nonissue against bigger opponents.

The Bears’ counterpart, Eagles goalkeeper Jake Agnew, has had an uneven start to the season — despite saving 72% of opponents’ shots. That includes a phenomenal eight-save performance against George Washington University. Agnew will be American’s key to staying in the game.

The goalkeeper’s ball control isn’t the only area of concern. The Bears have yet to find a go-to goal scorer. Alonzo Del Mundo, who made Top Drawer Soccer’s team of the week, has registered four assists in just three games. Del Mundo gives the team a consistent creative force, but no player has more than two goals. 

After scoring for the first time last weekend, starting striker Arman Samimi has a shot at laying claim to that central role. Substitute Tommy Williamson, who’s found the back of the net twice, could also make himself Cal’s first option. Agnew won’t make it easy, but Friday’s match against American is a chance for someone to latch onto the all-important position of striker.

Both Denver and American are winless, but for the Pioneers, such a record is more about who they have played rather than how they have played. 

Granted, they lost their starting striker when the prolific Andre Shinyashiki graduated after last season — but Denver has done well given their challenging schedule.

The Pioneers’ three losses have come against No. 4 Indiana, No. 8 Washington and No. 10 Notre Dame. All three games were decided by just one goal, and their clash with the Hoosiers went into overtime. 

While records alone would indicate Cal’s superiority, the team’s play on the field may tell a different story. The Pioneers will enter Edwards Stadium knowing that they have endured the tougher schedule and will be hungry to pick up a win. The Bears cannot afford to be outplayed. 

Denver has exhibited a tough defense, holding some of the best teams in the country to just a handful of goals. The Pioneers outshot No. 8 Washington, registering double the shots on target that the Huskies did.

Jacob Stensson, who registered eight assists last season, and Stefan DeLeone, who has yet to score this year despite being the fourth-highest goal scorer last term, will both be dangerous elements in Denver’s attack. 

It will be up to Callender and Texter to keep a clean sheet. The Bears’ midfield — especially Del Mundo, Davila and Francisco Perez — have shown a knack for tracking back and making important tackles. This strategy may be key to the game with Stensson and DeLeone in the Pioneers’ midfield.

Denver bring a real sense of danger to the Bay Area. They are a competitive team and may be the most difficult opponent the Bears have played thus far, despite their record. But Cal has played well enough to win, and with title aspirations. both in their conference and on a national level. This is not a game the blue and gold will care to lose.

Can Cal stay consistent? Championships come one step at a time. Will this weekend be a step up or a step down?

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