Cal looks for payback against Santa Clara in College Cup first round

Josh Kahen/Staff

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When the red card emerges from a referee’s pocket, it’s every team’s worst nightmare. One 4-by-3 inch square of colored plastic can nullify a year’s worth of effort, cutting short seasons, bringing forth tears and rewriting football history.

If David Beckham had not been sent off for lashing out at Diego Simeone, could England have broken its World Cup drought back in 1998? Eight years later, could France have won it all if Zinedine Zidane had taken a penalty in the deciding shootout instead of seeing red after his infamous exchange with Marco Materazzi?

A loss after a red card is one of the most bitter varieties of defeat, and in 2017, the Bears had a taste of their own. Three minutes into the first round of the NCAA College Cup, Cal defender Indigo Gibson was controversially given her marching orders by referee Turan Ozdemir, leaving the Bears to play the remaining 87 minutes shorthanded.

It was Cal’s only ejection of the entire season, but it cost them everything.

The Bears fought admirably against a fully staffed Santa Clara side to keep the game close, but a second-half Broncos goal put a premature end to Cal’s tournament run.

It would take a year of disappointment before the Bears made a return to the College Cup. In 2018, Cal lost nine of 11 conference matches, missing out on the postseason and ending a 14-year streak of tournament appearances.

This year, they’re back in attendance. In one season, Cal has gone from 11th to fifth in the Pac-12 — at long last, the Bears received an at-large bid to the College Cup on Monday.

“It feels really good,” said head coach Neil McGuire. “(The players) spent an entire year preparing for this moment.”

In a rematch of the 2017 first round, Cal will face now-No. 20 Santa Clara — this time, away from home. Back in September, Cal upset the Broncos in a 2-1 win that was punctuated by freshman Natalie Hueston’s 79th-minute game-winner — her first goal in blue and gold.

The Broncos finished second in the WCC behind a red-hot Brigham Young and are currently riding an 11-game unbeaten run. Santa Clara features one of the nation’s best first-year attackers in Izzy D’Aquila — the midfielder’s 14 goals are tied for the most by a freshman in the country. She’ll need to beat Cal’s freshman keeper Angelina Anderson, who was named both the Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Year and the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.

Still, even after their loss two years ago, McGuire and the Bears don’t plan on getting carried away by the history between the two sides.

“We have great respect for Santa Clara as a program, and obviously they’ve done a great job this year,” he said. “Our focus will be on our performance and making sure that we play well.”

Cal will need to bring everything it showed in September and then some if the Bears plan to settle the score with the Broncos and propel themselves into the second round. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Saturday at Stevens Stadium.

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