Cal women’s soccer preseason storylines: Bears to navigate troubled waters

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With Cal women’s soccer soon to be back in action, the Bears seem to have their backs up against the wall. The last game they played, a first-round exit loss in the NCAA tournament to Santa Clara, was back in November 2019.

Since then, a lot has changed: A pandemic rages on, former Cal cornerstones Luca Deza and Abi Kim have gone pro and an investigation of abuse allegations against head coach Neil McGuire continues as the program celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Here are some of the top storylines heading into what may be the program’s toughest season to date.

COVID-19 concerns continue to loom over Cal

Cal Athletics seems to have taken the pandemic seriously thus far — it’s canceled games out of an abundance of caution, tested players regularly and enforced contact tracing.

But like every other athletic program across the country, Cal women’s soccer will have to deal with the inconveniences that come with COVID-19 protocols. Because there’s no blueprint for a season like this, players will have to prepare for the worst. A positive test within the program would inevitably disrupt the Bears’ momentum, regardless of their record.

For the upcoming season, Cal’s home turf is also different. Edwards Stadium will not host home games as it has in years past, as it will be occupied by the Cal track and field team. Instead, the blue and gold will play at Witter Rugby Field. Because fans won’t be allowed entrance into the facilities, gone are the days of “wave” celebrations, coordinated Cal chants and echoing boos.

Filling the voids left by former Cal stars

There’s no doubt that the Bears have a lot of talent, but losing midfielder Deza and forwards Kim and Mia Corbin is a big blow to the team’s offensive prowess. The trio tallied the second-, fourth- and third-most points for the Bears last season, respectively, and led the squad to 32 total goals scored — the program’s most since 2016.

But if there’s one silver lining worth mentioning, it’s senior forward Emma Westin’s return. As the team’s top goal scorer last year, she’s more than capable of holding her own and will likely step up as a mentor to freshman forwards Anysa Gray, Abby Borchers and Hannah Cooper.

As for the midfield and back line, midfielder Paige Metayer and defenders Emily Smith and Sydney Collins are looking to keep the team grounded after finishing among the top five Bears in total minutes played last season. Cal is also in good hands with sophomore goalkeeper Angelina Anderson — the reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year — serving as a tri-captain for the Bears.

Conference-only matchups

Last year, the team finished with a record of 13-5-3, fifth overall in the conference. The year before that, it went 5-12-2 and finished 11th in the Pac-12. Given the drastic difference between those two seasons, it’d be fair to assume that the Bears would continue their upward trend — that is, if they had the same exact matchups they did last season, which they don’t.

Because their upcoming games are all conference-only, a more important record to analyze is their conference record from last season, 5-3-3. If Cal continues to upset top-tier teams as it did against No. 7 UCLA and No. 4 USC in its last campaign, then its ceiling may be as high as nine wins and a shot at the Pac-12 title.

But beating a team such as Stanford, which the Bears will play twice this season, is no easy task. A more realistic outcome might be an overall record of 6-4-4. Because the Bears will be underdogs in their matchups against Stanford, UCLA and Washington State, Cal can be safely projected to finish near the middle of the Pac-12 once again.

Ryan Chien covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].