Behind the scenes: How does Cal prepare for a season defining weekend?

Cheyenne Tex /Staff

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Watch a performance, any performance. Watch dancers or musicians or soccer players. What you see on that stage is only the end product of work solely devoted to performing here and now.

Cal men’s soccer is like any other team in that sense. What fans will see when the Bears take on Oregon State and No. 7 Washington is only a small part of what is actually happening.

“The key to every week and getting ready for the next match is making sure all the players are focused on their preparation and their performance,” said head coach Kevin Grimes.

Preparation comes one step at a time. It is truly a weeklong process and it covers multiple angles as coaches and players put themselves in the best position to be successful.

There’s the obvious, physical work required for the next game.

“Physical would be how well we are rehabilitating our bodies,” said Grimes. “How well are we making sure we’re doing all the treatment that’s necessary?”

This comes in the form of ice baths and massage therapy. Whether the Bears are recovering from injuries or just the physical stress of 90-minute soccer games and practices, keeping their bodies in top condition is no small task.

But there’s another side of the coin, and that is the mental aspect.

Soccer is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. You could be the greatest dribbler to ever walk the face of the earth, but it’s all peanuts if your head isn’t in the game.

“What does the individual player need? Does he need more individual work in terms of some video work exclusively for him and the positions he plays?” Grimes explained. “Does he need an arm around the shoulder to boost the confidence?”

Grimes and his staff have to find a balance between pushing and encouraging players physically, mentally and emotionally. Each Bear is an individual with different circumstances that may require sympathy one day and a gentle nudge the next.

Coaches also have to prepare their players tactically for a game, loading up on information about opposing players and strategies so that before the starting whistle blows, they’re already playing the game in their head.

New technologies have made it easier to view game film, a common strategy now employed by college soccer teams around the country.

Coaches and players squeeze into a small office to watch videos and clips of opponents. Cal has been using these methods for years.

“We look at video from their last game to last three games to get an idea of how they play, what system they play,” said assistant coach Jacob Wilson. “The main themes are how they play on offense, how they play on defense … what they do in transition.”

Wilson and the rest of the coaching staff search full-length game footage for examples of these themes, looking for patterns and tactics from opposing teams. They focus on their opponent’s key players, distilling an almost overwhelming amount of information into a few essential moments.

It pays off. In the Bears’ opening game against Omaha, goalkeeper Drake Callender saved a penalty in the late stages of the game to seal a Cal victory.

“We did do video of potentially where he would go, what I’m going to do, what his run up is, what foot he’s using,” explained Callender.

But they don’t just review opponents.

“We do that for the opponent but we also do it for ourselves. We’ll be a little more particular with ourselves,” said Wilson.

Game footage allows the coaches to show players what they are doing wrong and what they need to improve on. Large-scale formation or tactical shortcomings can be hard to fix — but when players see themselves and where they’re making mistakes, such changes become simple.

Film allows the Cal coaching staff to go over their own lineup with a fine-tooth comb.

All of that preparation, all of those hours comes down to a single, game-defining moment. That is ultimately why the mental game is honed the way it is, to give the Bears that slight edge in those moments.

Cal will need that edge ahead of a difficult slate of games this week. The Bears welcome Oregon State to town Thursday evening.

The Beavers (5-3) entered 2019 with high expectations due to their excellent campaign just a year ago, when they made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Head coach Terry Boss is the man responsible for the revolution in Corvallis. Last year’s Pac-12 Coach of the Year has completely transformed the Beavers’ style of play — in only his second year with the team.

Despite a less than ideal start, Oregon State has since found its form, winning two straight to start Pac-12 play undefeated. The Beavers will bring that streak to Edwards Stadium with an eye on extending it toward three consecutive victories.

Sofiane Djeffal has been a key part of that uptick in form: he earned an assist and a goal in each of Oregon State’s last two matches, a small part of what has been an impressive 2019. Djeffal was the Pac-12 Player of the Week just eight days ago and has three goals and five assists this season.

Adrian Crespo will be another dangerous playmaker on the Beaver offense. The sophomore has two goals and six assists.

After focusing on defensive shape in their latest training sessions, the Bears will hope they are up to the task. Cal has struggled to score at times this season, but a clean sheet last weekend against San Francisco showcased its defensive strength.

The Bears will need that strength when No. 7 Washington comes to town Sunday.

The Huskies offense has run riot, scoring 20 goals in just nine games. Washington has been almost as good on the other side of the ball, allowing just four scores on the season.

Strong play from goalies Bryce Logan and Sam Fowler have helped the Huskies to become that defensive masterclass, one which has not let in a goal in the last 394 minutes of play.

Redshirt sophomore Lucas Meek has been a standout on the attack, accumulating five goals in just seven appearances.

This weekend marks a chance for Cal to make a statement. The Bears began this season with high hopes but despite good performances, have yet to beat a legitimately good opponent — something they will have to do if they want to contend for a postseason spot.

Sophomore Jonathan Estrada is the man with the hot hand (or foot), scoring in each of Cal’s last two games. Leading scorer Tommy Williamson has cooled down from his blazing start, but if the two players link up, it could spell danger for opponents.

Ultimately, however, these games will be decided in the midfield and defense. If the Bears can maintain their defensive shape and take advantage of their preparation — they can find positive results.

These matches are essential. Two losses would make it difficult to contend in the Pac-12, especially considering Cal lost their conference opener to Stanford. Victories, though, will make people take notice.

After a week of hard work, can Cal produce a season-defining set of results?

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