Cal’s high-flying undefeated start to the season crashed back down to earth Sunday as the Bears were treated to a sobering 1-0 loss at the hands of Denver.
Despite beating American University 2-0 on Friday in convincing fashion and taking much of that superior form into a tense match with the Pioneers on Sunday, Cal could only go 1-1 on the weekend.
The Bears kicked off their latest homestand on a hot, stagnant Friday afternoon at Edwards Stadium. The first half was particularly brutal, as both American and Cal played 45 minutes in full view of the sun. Water breaks were given midway through both periods of play, but those were the only breaks American would get that day, as the Bears imposed their will on the flow of play.
The Eagles showed early on that they were going to pack the middle of the pitch for 90 minutes of defense.
“They were very compact. They did a nice job of locking down the fort,” remarked Bears head coach Kevin Grimes.
Cal struggled early on to create chances in open play, but just as the clock hit the 15-minute mark, senior Simon Lekressner guided home sophomore Taylor Davila’s corner to put the home side up 1-0.
Lekressner stepped up in the box, leaning toward goal and express mailing a header to the far post, beyond American University goalie Jake Agnew.
Agnew made 10 saves for American, but the junior never looked entirely confident; his statistical success stemmed more from Cal’s inability to create a finished product.
“We just seemed to be a hair off the timing of our finishing,” Grimes conceded. “We know soccer as a game where it’s not always about the amount of chances — it’s about what you do with those chances.”
Cal sophomore Jonathan Estrada found himself on the break with yards of space but was only able to send a tame effort to Agnew’s feet. At the close of the first half, redshirt freshman Christian Gomez smashed a close-range half volley straight at the Eagles keeper. Both chances had the right to be a goal.
The Eagles created several counterattacks, one of which Will Giannakouros nearly capitalized on, but his chip shot sailed over the bar and American failed to build any momentum before halftime.
The Bears threatened the wings in the second half, making mincemeat of the Eagles’ wingbacks. Lekressner and freshman Paolo Carrillo-Weisenburger both torched American’s Tim Neumann, each taking turns skipping by the opposing team’s left back. Lekressner had several particularly devilish runs. The senior used his speed and agility to burn American’s back line, slipping the ball around defenders and creating crosses aplenty.
Bears redshirt sophomore Alonzo Del Mundo turned heads with a near-perfect volley, hammering a long-range effort goalward from the top of the box. His picturesque shot sliced outside the post, centimeters from perfection.
Cal’s second goal would come from the opposite side of the pitch. In the 63rd minute, junior Francisco Perez created space at the top of the box before tapping a through ball to junior Tommy Williamson.
Williamson dragged the ball in front of him before redirecting it into the bottom-right corner. The net rippled and the bench mobbed Williamson, cheering his third goal of the season.
The Bears produced a handful of other opportunities before the final whistle. Perez sent a missile on frame and Del Mundo snatched at a shot, but neither chance was able to pass the end line.
Euphoria from the victory ran out just days later, though, as the Denver Pioneers left Edwards Stadium with their first win of the season.
The weekend’s second game was frenetic and physical. The midfield often turned into a pinball machine as the ball bounced without any real control by teams or players.
But both on paper and on the field, the Bears ultimately dominated, tallying 20 shots and steering eight of them on goal. None were able to touch the net, though, and it would cost Cal.
Denver’s lone score came out of nowhere. The Pioneers sat back for a majority of the game, using forward Preston Judd to create their few counterattacks. One chance would be enough, though, and just before the half-hour mark, Josh Drack flicked a cross in from the left flank.
Judd took his run across the face of the goal, beating Cal senior goalkeeper Drake Callender to the ball and nodding it in. It was one of just two shots on goal for Denver.
Emotions would run high. Lekressner and Williamson were both shown yellow cards for hard tackles. Drack and Pioneers goalie Will Palmquist were given the same treatment for delaying the game.
Fortunes seemed to shift late in the second half. Multiple calls for penalties had sounded from the Cal sideline throughout the game, but Bailey Heller’s bowling over of Williamson finally forced the referee’s hand, and Taylor Davila stepped up to the penalty spot.
“I stepped up, didn’t hit it well. That’s about it,” Davila said of his saved spot kick.
The shot was low, centered and unable to sneak past Palmquist, who guessed correctly and dived to his right.
It was one of several chances for the Bears throughout the match. A first-half header was blocked by Palmquist, who quickly dived on the rebound before any Cal player could steer home a second opportunity.
A similar play in the second half actually beat Palmquist. Lekressner sent a vicious, bouncing header past the outstretched arms of Denver’s keeper only to see it cleared off the line by Danny Barlow.
Ultimately, none of it was enough for the Bears, who fell just short and dropped to a still respectable 3-1-1 record.
“It’s soccer in a nutshell,” Grimes stated after the game, “There’s days it doesn’t go your way, and today was one of those days. There were plenty of chances to tie the game, even win it, and it just didn’t happen.”
The Bears’ focus will remain on scoring. Cal has averaged 20.2 shots per game this season but only has seven goals to show for it. After throttling UC Santa Barbara 3-0 earlier this season, it seemed as if those goal-scoring woes were in the rearview mirror, but the specter that is missed opportunity has returned with a vengeance.
It was an agonizing loss to a good team.
“They’ll be in the playoffs at the end of the season because they’re that good. They’re playing an incredible schedule, so you put all that together. … They’re a good team,” Grimes said of Denver.
The Pioneers have played a schedule that is almost exclusively made up of teams ranked in the top 10. Playing that level of opposition at the latter end of a two-game weekend poses challenges for the Bears, who spent much of the week preparing for American University.
“We were so geared in on focusing on American,” Grimes said. “If you ever look a centimeter ahead, it comes back to haunt you.”
Cal’s coaching staff has maintained that style of pregame preparation, taking the season one step at a time. It paid off against American, but it may have cost the Bears against Denver.
Cal will take some encouragement into its next match, a colossal Pac-12 opener against rival No. 3 Stanford.
“It shows we can play with teams like this. We just have to put away our chances,” Davila pointed out. “We can beat these guys on our, or on their, day — it doesn’t matter.”
The Bears will have less than a week to recalibrate and fix their problems.