With an abbreviated, conference-only schedule in this uncommon 2021 season, the Cal men’s soccer team already faces the grim reality that its hopes of a Pac-12 title could slip away if it doesn’t reverse course after last weekend’s 3-1 loss in the Big Clasico.
Without the luxury of early nonconference games to work out the kinks, Cal heads right back into battle Saturday against defending conference champion Washington, which since 2011 has racked up a 12-3-2 record over Cal.
“If we clean up a few things, we can start to see results turn our way,” said redshirt junior midfielder Lucas Churchill. “The improvement we’ve seen from six weeks ago has been tremendous. Having our first real competition under our belt is going to help us immensely. Everyone is going to have to contribute.”
A collective effort is going to be essential against the Huskies, who were touted as the favorites in the Pac-12 Men’s Soccer Preseason Coaches Poll and have outscored their opponents 10-2 so far this season. A contentious second half last weekend was the difference in their 1-2 loss to Oregon State, a defeat they’ll be keen to overwrite with a dominant performance against the Bears.
Lead scorer Nick Scardina and assist leaders Imanol Rosales and Dylan Teves lead a Washington midfield that is just as dangerous in front of goal as it is dominant in the middle of the park. That midfield, coupled with a lot of returning starters in a back line that tallied 12 clean sheets last season, means the Huskies boast a balanced squad that offers a tough code to crack for the Bears.
“They have a combination of talented, quality players for certain,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “They are probably going to be a little more direct. It’s something that they’ve been doing for a long time, and they’re obviously good at it.”
In their last matchup in 2019 — one of the Bears’ last games of the season — Cal beat Washington 3-2. A late goal from now-redshirt junior midfielder Alonzo Del Mundo ended up being the difference. Many of the qualities Cal exerted that night in Washington will need to be replicated for the Bears to earn a win this weekend. According to Churchill, a renewed emphasis on controlling the midfield may give Cal the advantage.
“It’s going to be important to have control of the ball,” Churchill said. “Last weekend, we played into Stanford’s hands. If we can keep the ball on the ground and play to our strengths and keep the ball away from their feet, it’s going to make it tough for their midfield to have success against us.”
It’s apparent that the Bears need to reinforce their set piece defense after allowing three set piece goals against Stanford. There is a silver lining, however, in that Cal didn’t allow a goal from open play, providing a benchmark for the Bears to build on after their first 90 minutes of competition.
“If we get a little more compact, that is going to help us a long way,” Grimes said. “Whether that’s compact on a set piece, in transition or in recovery back to our shape.”
Kickoff is at 1 p.m. at Witter Rugby Field. While fans are not allowed to attend because of local COVID-19 guidelines, their absence is unlikely to make the difference. Instead, the Bears will have to commit to the style of play that brought them so much success in the latter half of last season.
“We know how good this Washington team is; we have a lot of respect for them,” Churchill said. “If we can play our game, I think we’ll be OK.”