Cal to kick off season with Big Clasico in Berkeley

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When Cal lost 3-1 to Santa Barbara in the first round of the 2019 NCAA tournament, the disappointment was almost tangible. In the final week of the regular season, the Bears had beaten then-No. 1 Washington and No. 4 Stanford just seven days apart. The excitement of making the tournament after earlier runs of inconsistency was quickly replaced by an overarching sense of dissatisfaction.

After nearly 15 long months of preparation and patience, that bitter ending can now finally be put behind the team. Head coach Kevin Grimes, now in his 21st season as the Cal gaffer, and his Bears have awaited this new beginning for a long time. And what a beginning it should be.

Cal kicks off its season against rival Stanford in Berkeley this Saturday evening. In the last Big Clasico, back in November of 2019, the Bears upset the then-No. 4 Cardinal 1-0 in Palo Alto. So Stanford will no doubt be keen to redeem itself.

The match will be played at Witter Rugby Field. This year, all five Cal home matches will be played at Witter Rugby Field outside Memorial Stadium, instead of at Edwards Stadium, the blue and gold’s usual home pitch. Edwards Stadium will be occupied by the Cal track and field team. Fans will not be allowed to attend matches in accordance with local COVID-19 health protocols.

While the United Soccer Coaches have yet to release rankings, it’s clear that the Bears are in for a tough game. The Cardinal, who made it to the semifinals of the last NCAA tournament, won its first two games of the season, blanking Pacific 4-0 in its opener Feb. 12 and San Francisco 5-0 on Monday.

Three of Stanford’s nine goals this season have come from junior midfielder Will Richmond. The Piedmont High School alum has already surpassed his collegiate career goal total within the first two games of the 2021 campaign, as he had just two goals to his name over the course of his first two seasons.

Sophomore midfielder Keegan Tingey is also enjoying a breakout year so far, albeit more quietly than Richmond. Tingey leads Stanford in assists so far, nabbing his first against the Tigers and two more against the Dons. He also scored a beautiful goal against USF, as his right-footed, curling effort from just outside the box skipped past the outstretched hands of Dons goalkeeper Ruben Stuiver and into the bottom right corner.

The Cardinal will no doubt be the team to beat this year in the Pac-12. But the Bears, while perhaps not the same caliber as their South Bay foes, will be no pushovers. Collegiate soccer rewards experience just as much as it does talent, and Grimes’s squad has plenty of both.

Redshirt junior forward Alonzo Del Mundo, who tied for first in the conference with nine assists last season, and senior striker Tommy Williamson, the Bears’ leading scorer last season, are poised for prolific years. Just last month, Major League Soccer club San Jose Earthquakes selected Williamson with the 12th overall pick in the MLS SuperDraft. The forward opted to delay signing a professional contract with the club in order to play his senior season in Berkeley.

The Bears also return three of their four starting defenders from 2019’s backline: left-back Christopher Grey and centerbacks J.J. Foe Nuphaus and Ian Lonergan. Cal will have to find a replacement for former right-back and captain Simon Lekressner, who was drafted by the New England Revolution in January 2020. This will be no easy task, as Lekressner was a vocal, passionate wing-back known for flying up and down the pitch.

Cal’s sole weakness might be its midfield, as Taylor Davila, the blue and gold’s starting central defensive midfielder of two years, recently signed a professional contract with LA Galaxy II of the United Soccer League. Davila was the Bears’ midfield maestro and ball-winner in the middle of the pitch for the past two seasons — his passing, patience and tackling will be sorely missed.

In any case, the blue and gold must play out of their socks in order to beat a Stanford team that has played quality soccer as of late. Cal has the experience and class to do so, so fans have every reason to watch (from a safe distance) with bated breath.

William Cooke covers men’s soccer and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].