Pac-12 play begins as Cal looks to topple No. 7 UCLA

Sam Albillo/Staff

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Not all losses are created equal.

There are matches where players cordially shake their opponents’ hands and there are matches where the second-best lies prone on the ground, thinking about what could have been. Whether the pain is fleeting or too heavy to vocalize, there can only be next time — and maybe, that next time will be more equal.

When Cal played UCLA last year, the Bruins made themselves at home at Edwards Stadium as they blew out the Bears 4-0. This season’s Cal team remembers that loss, but going into its reverse fixture at No. 7 UCLA this Friday, the unranked Bears will be tasked with a giant-slaying of epic proportions. If revenge is a dish best served cold, there’s no telling if it will spoil in the heat of the Los Angeles sun.

As expected, Cal has fallen out of the Top 25 after a surprising 2-0 loss against Portland last Sunday at home. The Bears have proven their defensive mettle after their eight-game winning streak to open the season, but last Sunday’s loss saw their first hiccups of the year.

Turnovers from passes around the back and uncharacteristically heavy first touches made the Bears’ defense seem rattled for the first time this season, while their offense was kept in hibernation by an organized Pilots squad.

Still, Cal is more than pleased with an 8-1 record — they will hope, however, that last weekend’s subpar performance does not rear its head in Westwood as the Bears kick off conference play. For the rest of the season, Cal will face the 11 other Pac-12 teams, culminating in an away match against Stanford on Nov. 8.

The Bears’ first opponent is no pushover. The No. 7 Bruins are returning to the mainland after a trip to Hawaii for the Rainbow Wahine Shootout last week. UCLA went 6-1-1 in their nonconference games, drawing with Pepperdine in Honolulu and losing on the road to Santa Clara — the same Broncos team the Bears beat at Edwards Stadium earlier this year.

The Bruins have benefited from a wide array of goalscorers, with eight players netting for a total of 15 team goals and a 1.88 goals-per-game average. Freshman attacker Mia Fishel leads the bunch with 4, but a multifaceted UCLA offense including junior forward Ashley Sanchez and World Cup-capped midfielder Jessie Fleming will be the biggest threat Cal has faced so far.

Head coach Neil McGuire and his Bears have had a week to review their film from last Sunday and the Cal 11 should be on fresh legs and mentally ready to go. An away win will be a difficult assignment — a clean sheet even more so — and the Bears will trot out expecting to play their best game of the season while returning to the same defensive form they showed earlier in the year.

One player to watch will be senior forward Abi Kim, who was held in check last week by Portland. The scouting report on Cal’s top scorer last year is simple, and the tools Kim possesses are straightforward and effective — extreme pace on runs down the wing, acceleration that leaves unprepared defenders in the dust, and a right boot that can swing in tantalizing crosses. Until the loss to Portland, she had run circles around her assortment of markers — if she can be supplied with accurate passes into space and support in the center, Kim will be sniffing at the UCLA goal this Friday.

On the defensive front, freshman goalkeeper Angelina Anderson has started every game of the season for Cal. The U.S. women’s national soccer team’s former U-17 starting keeper has been sensational — her 13 saves have been essential to a Cal defense that has allowed a 0.33 goals against average for the year.

Although Cal has its share of standout players, the No. 7 Bruins will be favorites to serve the Bears their second loss of the year. Cal will need to recapture the spark that spurred the team to its second-best season start in program history, and even if they find it again, it may not be enough to overcome a formidable UCLA side. The Bears will need to play their best game yet.

Kick-off will be Friday at 7 p.m. and the match will be televised live on the Pac-12 networks.

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