Soccer is a game of inches. A breath of wind, a half step or a lucky bounce can make or break a season. Fortune and success can be products of chaos as much as anything else.
This is something that Cal men’s soccer has felt acutely through the first half of its season. With the exception of just a few, short moments throughout 2019, the Bears have not been outplayed.
“We’ve defended extremely well, we haven’t given up a lot of goals, and we’re creating tons of chances,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “On both sides of the ball, we’re doing very well. You’re inches away from being 9-0.”
But Cal is not 9-0, it’s 5-3-1. It’s not that the Bears have been unlucky, but it does feel as if they are a touch away from greatness.
This touch is one that must be found this weekend when Cal takes a trip south for Pac-12 matches against UCLA and San Diego State.
The Bears have had a rocky start to conference play, with unfortunate losses to No. 2 Washington and No. 7 Stanford. While neither game was out of Cal’s reach and neither loss is a season-ender, the Bears need Pac-12 wins to stay competitive.
This weekend may be the perfect opportunity to get back into the thick of things. Cal has struggled to score this season, averaging only 1.33 goals per game despite registering an astonishing 17.6 shots per game. These same difficulties were on full display against Washington — the Bears had 12 shots, but only two on target.
UCLA and San Diego State have both been weak defensively, though. Both have managed just one clean sheet and both have given up more than two goals per game on average.
The Bruins and Aztecs have each had poor goalkeeping, and every keeper the Bears face this week will have save percentages below 70%. If Cal can continue to create chances and put even a handful of shots on target, it could witness an offensive explosion.
“We create a lot of chances,” Grimes said. “We’re super dangerous in multiple ways on attack.”
Both games present an opportunity for the Bears to showcase this danger. Cal has averaged 6.12 shots on goal every game. If they can muster a similar number of chances against the weaker defenses in Southern California, then the weekend could be a fruitful one in front of the goal for strikers wearing dark blue and gold.
Strikers Tommy Williamson and Jonathan Estrada have both found their scoring form as of late, and good performances from each will be key to breaking the Bears’ goal woes.
But this is by no means an easy task. UCLA, in particular, presents its own threat. The Bruins front line is lead by Milan Iloski, who has tallied 14 goals in 10 appearances this season, including an unbelievable five-goal performance last week against San Diego State.
“He’s shooting well and certainly feeling confident around frame,” Grimes said. “Without question, he’s a guy we’re going to have to keep our eye on and limit his touches.”
Iloski has scored in three consecutive matches, and UCLA is undefeated in those same three games. The Bruins have found a semblance of form.
San Diego State, on the other hand, is winless in conference play thus far and Cal must keep it that way if it is to stay competitive.
“There’s a lot to play for,” Grimes said. “You can still play for winning the Pac-12. You can still play for a postseason berth.”
Despite the Bears’ 1-2 conference record, they are still truly in the mix for a Pac-12 title. Cal is four points behind second place Oregon State and nine points behind leaders Washington, but 2019 has proven to be chaotic thus far. The door is wide open, and anything is possible.
This is something both the Aztecs and the Bears will have on their minds when they enter the SDSU Sports Deck. A loss to either could be impossible to recover from.
In the game of soccer, though, mere inches can separate success from failure. But this weekend, failure is not an option. Cal must overcome the inches if they are to keep their hopes of a great season alive.