With their toughest challenge yet lurking just around the corner, the Bears cannot take the time to hibernate now.
“Offensively, we need to be able to retain the ball more.” said tri-captain goalkeeper Angelina Anderson. “It’s easy to get an early goal and let your foot off the gas. But in a Pac-12 match, you have 90 minutes of hard soccer to play and there’s just no time to coast.”
For the past three games, the Cal women’s soccer team has edged out only one of its opponents, falling short 2-1 to both Colorado and Washington. As they head to Palo Alto this Saturday, the Bears are intent on bouncing back from their seasonal slump for their long-anticipated match against the No. 22 Stanford Cardinal.
“There’s a lot of emotions that go into a game like Cal versus Stanford. It’s super exciting and there’s some nerves playing such a talented team.” Anderson said. “The story behind the Cal-Stanford rivalry definitely adds to the intensity of the match. But that pressure makes it worth it.”
To date, the performances by both Bay Area teams look eerily identical. Having played nearly the exact same slate of opponents, they’ve each collected three or more wins and two losses.
Yet despite their similarities, Stanford sits at second place in the Pac-12 while Cal has recently dropped from fourth to seventh. The decisive difference so far? Recent trends for each team.
This month, the Cardinal remain undefeated. Stanford’s most convincing victory came against Utah, for which the Cardinal blew out the Utes 5-0. After starting its season 0-2 in conference play, Stanford has seemingly risen from the ashes and hasn’t looked back since.
High-scoring freshmen midfielders Amy Sayer and Sarah Paulson have joined returning stars, forwards Madison Haley and Civana Kuhlmann and defender Kiki Pickett, all three of whom were recently named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List. Boasting two clean sheets out of the last three opponents it faced, Stanford is quickly returning to its normal form as the defending 2019 NCAA Women’s Soccer Champions.
Remarkably, the Cardinal haven’t created many offensive chances this year; but when they have, they’ve been among the most accurate teams in the Pac-12. Though the team ranks 10th in its conference for total shots, Stanford is second place in shot percentage with a 16%.
“Stanford’s scoring abilities are no joke,” Anderson said. “They have incredible individual talent and we know that they’re all going to come out strong and sharp.”
In an opposite trend, Cal started off strong against Oregon and Oregon State, but has since petered out. After beating the Ducks and Beavers on the road, the Bears have struggled to stay afloat as one of the nation’s top 25 teams and are now out of the United Soccer Coaches’ ranking as of Tuesday. Granted, the blue and gold shut out Utah 1-0 two weekends ago, but the outcomes of their style of play have been inconsistent.
When the Bears heat up they’re able to launch off shots with ease, particularly during the first half. But as soon as they manage to take the lead, their defensive formation has been shown to falter. A telling example was a 2-1 loss to Washington after the Huskies scored a giveaway game-winning goal in the 83rd minute.
To match the Cardinal’s offensive efficiency, the Bears need to maintain their aggression throughout all 90 minutes. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but perhaps initiating counter attacks — led by midfielder Emma Westin and center back Maya Evans — can relieve pressure felt by the Bears’ backline.
“Our goal is to just play composed and controlled at all times,” Anderson said. “Having a really smart and talented backline in some veterans in Emily Smith, Sydney Collins, Kailee Gifford, Abena Aidoo, and fresh new talent in Maya Evans, we’re feeling pretty confident.”
Come Saturday, Stanford looks to extend its three-game winning streak to catch up with the elusive, undefeated No. 3 UCLA Bruins in the Pac-12 rankings. Conversely, Cal aims to sound the alarm after their recent snooze — a wake-up call to prove to doubters that its season’s flashy start wasn’t just a two-game fluke.
Ryan Chien covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].