Starting its season against Stanford, which outscored its first two opponents of the season nine goals to nil and made the last NCAA tournament semifinals, was always going to be a tall task for Cal. Based on total shots alone, the Cardinal deserved the 3-1 victory they earned at Witter Rugby Field in Berkeley on Saturday evening, as they got 16 shots off to the Bears’ four.
But surprisingly enough, the blue and gold did not allow a single goal from open play — all three Stanford goals came off of set pieces.
The Cardinal’s third goal of the night and the nail in the Bears’ coffin came in the 77th minute when Stanford’s go-to forward this season, redshirt junior Zach Ryan, connected on a header off of a free kick from the right channel. The New Jersey local flicked in midfielder Carlo Agostinelli’s cross from the near post. Ryan has now scored in each of the Cardinal’s three games this season.
Despite the poor defending on set pieces, which Cal centerback Ian Lonergan and head coach Kevin Grimes indicated needed improvement, the blue and gold by no means looked like a lost cause. Down 1-0 at halftime after Stanford forward Gabe Segal converted a free kick in the 36th minute, the Bears regrouped and dominated possession for the first portion of the second half.
“We were just talking about being patient on the ball and playing our game,” Lonergan said. “It was good for us because right out of halftime, we ended up moving the ball really well. There was a spell of about 25 minutes where we were just knocking around Stanford, and their press is their whole game, so building out of their press was perfect for us because we wore them down.”
That stretch of the game, if nothing else, showed that Cal is capable of competing against the best teams in the nation. Extending that run of form for longer stretches of games will be the squad’s challenge for the rest of its 10-game regular season.
“Probably the first 20 to 25 minutes of that (second) half, we were dynamite,” Grimes said. “You can only be happy to play that well. We just have to turn those 25 minutes, and we have to double it in the next game, then we have to triple it in the game after that.”
The Bears’ spell of good soccer paid off within the first five minutes of the second half when midfielder Christian Gomez evened the scoring at one goal apiece. Gomez followed striker Tommy Williamson’s hard and low shot off of Cardinal goalkeeper Andrew Thomas’ save and tapped the ball into the back of the net.
Unfortunately for Cal, Stanford responded quickly as Ryan scored his first of the night in the 65th minute to put the visitors up 2-1. His second came 12 minutes later and put the game to bed.
While the 3-1 final scoreline doesn’t reflect it, the Bears did well considering that there were four notable changes from last season’s starting 11. Redshirt freshman Tate Dolan made his first-ever appearance on the pitch for the blue and gold after redshirting last year and seems to have filled the open right-back position once held by former Cal captain Simon Lekressner. Redshirt junior Lucas Churchill, who has made 29 total appearances for the Bears over the course of his first three years in Berkeley, also cracked the starting lineup. Churchill, a defensive midfielder, took the place of Taylor Davila, who recently signed with USL team LA Galaxy II.
Redshirt junior goalkeeper Chris Gustini was in the starting lineup in what marked his first appearance for the Bears. The Rancho Santa Fe local replaced the goalkeeping vacancy left by Drake Callender, who signed with MLS team Inter Miami CF in December 2019. Redshirt freshman Collin Travasos replaced Gustini for the second half.
True freshman forward Nate Carrasco also broke into the starting squad, making his first appearance as a member of the blue and gold.
In any case, this young Cal team, one that hadn’t played a game since November 2019, clearly has some work to do. But the Bears’ performance Saturday night offered some hope for better results.
“It was a building moment for this team because we have a lot of young pieces that came in and a lot of kids that got their college debuts,” Lonergan said. “It’s going to be a learning curve for a lot of those guys and just as a whole team, together. I think we had a lot better of a second half than we had a first half. We just need to build off of that.”
William Cooke covers men’s soccer and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].