NCAA tournament bid is on the line for Cal men’s soccer

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The Cal men’s soccer team has pulled off one of the greatest comebacks since Lazarus.

Well, not quite. But considering that the Bears were winless through three games and looked half dead in their first match against then-No. 8 Oregon State, Cal’s rebirth over the last five weeks of its season has been nothing short of remarkable. If it can nab two wins in its final two games of the season, against San Diego State this Saturday and UCLA the following weekend, the team has a solid chance to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament — at least according to head coach Kevin Grimes.

“If you finish your season as strong as we have — we’re 3-1-1 in our last five games — and you finish even stronger in these last two, you’ve got a really good argument to get in the tournament,” Grimes said. “If you win five of your last seven games, that looks really strong to the selection committee.”

After falling into a 0-1 hole early against the Aztecs on March 13, it seemed that the Bears’ season was truly lost. San Diego State has finished last in the Pac-12 for three straight seasons and is currently wallowing in the basement with a 1-5-2 record. And after being walloped by the Beavers 0-4 the week prior, all hope seemed lost for the blue and gold.

But at the end of 90 minutes, the stone was rolled away. Cal earned a 3-2 victory, the team’s first win of the season, thanks to an 81st minute goal from striker Arman Samimi. Since then (as Grimes was eager to point out), the Bears have gone 3-1-1, including a win over No. 3 Oregon State and a narrow loss to No. 7 Washington last Saturday. It’s possible that all that stood in the way of a tie against the Huskies was a highly controversial penalty decision early in the first half that helped Washington climb back into the game.

An abbreviated season means obtaining solid results is all the more valuable. Yet even after a heartbreaking loss, Grimes insists that his team handled the result well.

“They don’t hang on to losses for very long. I mean, they hang on to losses for probably less than 24 hours and they move on to the next thing that’s ahead of them,” Grimes said. “Whatever it is, they just roll with it. So there definitely is no funk in the team.”

On Saturday, Cal will play the Aztecs again, this time at Witter Rugby Field in Berkeley. Grimes’ squad has been a totally different beast to watch since the first time these two teams met, so fans shouldn’t be surprised if the Bears take it to the visitors from the first whistle instead of waiting until the final 10 minutes to score a game-winner.

Since losing to then-No. 4 Oregon State 0-5 on March 20, San Diego State has also experienced a slight revival. The Aztecs grinded out a 2-2 overtime draw against the Bruins just four days later. Four days after that, they proceeded to beat No. 4 Washington 2-0 for their lone win of the season thus far. San Diego State’s record is deceptive, so Cal should certainly be wary of coming out flat-footed again.

The Bears currently sit in fourth place in the conference, behind top-20 teams Stanford, Washington and Oregon State. If Cal can beat sixth place San Diego State and fifth place UCLA in consecutive weeks to secure at least a fourth-place finish, the Bears may get to fly out to Cary, North Carolina, to join the 36-team NCAA tournament field. Now that would be quite the comeback.

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