There’s a lesson to be learned from Cal’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of Portland on Thursday evening.
What you choose to do, you should do well.
Success in sports, as in everything else, depends on your best effort. To do well, you need to bring your A-game. For the first half of the Bears’ visit to Merlo Field, however, their game was closer to a C-minus.
“We just had a really slow start to the game. The level of intensity was low from the beginning,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “It can happen in sports, where you come out and you’re absolutely flat.”
The word flat was one which Grimes would continue to use when describing his team’s performance. Cal had traveled to Portland intending to maintain its undefeated form and march to its own tune.
In the first half, however, the Bears were a shell of their former selves.
Portland outshot Cal six to one in the first half, utilizing free flowing play and the width of the field to frustrate the Bears and create space in the middle.
These tactics would pay off, as Pilot midfielder Greg Tracey found a gap on top of the box and Cal’s Ian Lonergan was forced to foul him and cede a free kick to Portland in the 19th minute.
Freshman Jacobo Reyes, who tops the Pilots’ goal scoring and assist charts, stepped up and sent a right-footed curler over the wall and past the diving fingers of goalkeeper Drake Callender.
The Bears went into halftime in dire need of a change.
“You play any good team, if you spot them a half, you better hope you come in 0-0 so you can regroup,” said Grimes. “But we didn’t. We spotted them a half and they had a goal. That sets you back a bit.”
Cal came out of the locker room a new team, its play and energy visibly reinvigorated. That didn’t stop Portland, though, which wasted no time in doubling its lead.
Reyes was, once again, a man to be feared. The Mexican-born midfielder sliced through most of the Bears’ half before laying a pass into the right side of the box for fellow freshman Ben Ortiz. Ortiz wasted no time in setting up Tracey, who slipped a shot past Callender, leaving the Pilots up 2-0.
But the Bears did improve in the second period of play, creating five shots as opposed to the first half’s solitary effort and showing a sharpness they had previously lacked.
“Energy and intensity. It looked much better,” explained Grimes. “It looked more like what our group has played like for much of our season.”
That intensity paid off: with 22 minutes left in the match, Cal finally struck back. Francisco Perez would put the Bears back in the game with his 68th minute strike past Portland’s goalkeeper Josh Lagudah.
Sophomore Jonathan Estrada was the creative force behind Perez’s excellent finish, racking up his third assist of the season. Estrada has now been involved with a goal in six of the last seven games.
The work from Perez and Estrada, however, proved to be too little, too late.
“We scored a great goal, it was a wonderful strike by Francisco, and we were close. But we only had 45 minutes,” Grimes explained.
The Bears were ultimately unable to dig out of the hole they put themselves in, with their anonymous and anomalous first half proving to be a bridge too far.
And it was an anomaly. Like any team, Cal has witnessed particular struggles throughout 2019, but its first half performance in Portland is a mystery to all, even the head coach.
“I don’t know, there’s not anything in particular that stood out. We’ve had a nice break between games. It was a beautiful night, fantastic environment and atmosphere, gorgeous field. Every element you could want as a player was there at your fingertips, so there’s really no explanation,” said Grimes.
The Bears had to deal with travel and a nine-day break, but the team has faced more difficult away journeys and breaks usually have an invigorating rather than detrimental effect.
“Sometimes it happens and that’s what happened,” said Grimes. “You have to play 90 minutes of concentrated and energetic soccer. If you don’t there’s always that chance that you can spot a team a goal and that’s what we did.”
This loss does nothing to help a Cal squad which is targeting a place in the NCAA tournament come the end of the season. Fortunately for the Bears, it was a nonconference match and they have the opportunity to recover and continue their challenge in the Pac-12.
This was in no way a “good defeat.” Cal faces another long break before they take on rivals UCLA at home Oct. 31. The Bears must ensure that this performance stays an anomaly, or their season — like this game — will slip out of their grasp.
Jasper Sundeen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at