They say that if you aim for the king, you best not miss. Last Friday, Cal hosted its rival, No. 2 Stanford, and miss they did.
“There’s only so many chances in the game. First and foremost, they have to be on frame,” said goalkeeper Drake Callender after the final whistle. “Missed shots are a missed opportunity to test the goalie and maybe even score.”
This has been a common theme for the Bears throughout this season. Cal has dominated possession and the run of play only to come up short in multiple games, and though missed opportunities ultimately cost the Bears a 2-1 loss to Stanford, scoring remains the team’s primary focus.
“We have to get better at finishing,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “We have to get better at finishing our chances.”
The “Big Clasico” began the opposite of how it ended. It took Cal just eight minutes to bring the home crowd to its feet.
The Bears came out of the gate guns blazing, and their early pressure to the ball bore fruit when a turnover and through ball let Francisco Perez loose down the left wing.
The junior wasted no time in sliding a ball into the center of the box where Jonathan Estrada stole in ahead of the defense and put the home side up 1-0. It was only the second goal of the season scored on Stanford, and it was the first time this year that the Cardinal found themselves behind in a match.
Cal looked confident for most of the first half, pressuring hard and forcing long balls. The Bears’ back line, particularly JJ Foe Nuphaus and Simon Lekressner, did an excellent job of isolating Stanford’s forwards Ousseni Bouda and Zach Ryan and winning back the ball.
The Bears also found success on the counter-attack. Estrada continued to shine, seeking out the spaces in between Stanford’s lines and exploiting them on the dribble. Cal was able to create space and run at the Cardinal defense, with captain Tanner Beason being the only player standing between Stanford and disaster.
“Jona (Estrada) was fantastic tonight,” said Grimes. “We try to utilize him like we always do and he had a great game.”
With their backs increasingly against the wall, the Cardinal made a tactical change in a bid to retake control of the game. Marc Joshua entered the game for Will Richmond and Charlie Wehan dropped from the left wing in a 4-3-3 to a left midfielder in a 4-4-2 formation. This shift slowed down proceedings and clogged up the midfield, hampering Cal’s previous swashbuckling play.
The Bears could never recover, and in the 40th-minute, Stanford equalized when a Bouda cross found Arda Bulut just ahead of Callender. The score changed the landscape of the match. After going blow for blow with the No. 2 team in the nation for 45 minutes, Cal found itself in hot water during the latter stages of the game.
“Second half — I don’t think we had quite the same zip in our legs as the first half,” commented Grimes. “We just couldn’t play the same level in the second half as we did in the first half.”
The Bears alternated between trying to do too much and too little. A Cal team that normally thrived off turnovers and possessing the ball on the ground found itself in an aerial dogfight, as both teams exchanged long balls.
Taylor Davila, a steady rock in the midfield for the Bears, made multiple uncharacteristic errors. Stanford, in turn, thrived on the counterattack, with Bouda and Wehan using their speed to torture Cal’s back line. Ian Lonergan made several mistakes for Cal but put in a heroic effort at the back, blocking multiple shots.
Stanford finally broke the tie when the Cardinal’s Gabe Segal picked Davila’s pocket and took a long run across the pitch before slicing a strike into the bottom left corner.
Cal showed individual flashes of brilliance, most notably from Perez and Simon Lekressner, but the Bears were unable to take advantage of opportunities as a team.
“It really just came down to who wanted it more,” Callender said.
Stanford improved to a perfect 6-0, avenging last year’s loss to the Bears. The Cardinal are contenders for the national title and until proven otherwise, the de-facto favorites to hoist their sixth straight Pac-12 title.
Cal has lost their second game in a row and their first Pac-12 match of the season. While this game does leave many questions about Cal’s scoring unanswered, the squad remains undaunted.
“We just learn from our matches,” said Callender. “Be optimistic but understand there are things we need to work on.”
The Bears’ next step will be to put up a more consistent performance through all 90 minutes and hope that when these sides next clash in November, they will be ready.