It’s been a long, winding, upside down and sideways last 18 months for the Cal men’s soccer team who, like the rest of the world, had to figure out how to exist in a pandemic.
From training individually at local city parks to being barred from access to training facilities for longer than any other Pac-12 team, the Bears have been through the ringer. Those tribulations, however, have girded Cal for Saturday’s battle at UCLA, its last game of the regular spring season. With a bid to the NCAA tournament within reach, the Bears have everything to play for.
“To start off the season 0-3 and then seven games later, here we are playing potentially for a playoff berth,” said head coach Kevin Grimes. “It’s a huge credit to the players and their commitment to each other and the team.”
Cal has salvaged its season from doomsday and has turned it into a field day. During each victory this season, the Bears showed a perfect balance of measured fortitude in defense and creativity in attack, with a multitude of unlikely heroes emerging in the process.
Junior Jonathan Estrada, whose goal and assist lifted his team over San Diego State last week, is looking forward to rising to the occasion once again.
“I’m excited. This [Southern California] is where I played all of my soccer growing up,” Estrada said. “Team wise, it’s a good feeling going into your last game knowing there is still so much to play for.”
To the Bears’ benefit, the Bruins are seemingly out of postseason contention given their 2-6-2 record. Not even a shock 2-1 victory over then-No. 9 Oregon State earlier this month could fix their consistent mediocrity. A loss to No. 7 Washington last week made them plummet back into the loss column.
In their last matchup earlier this season, the Bears earned a comfortable 2-0 win against UCLA after two quick first-half daggers. One sumptuous strike from midfielder Evan Davila in the 14th minute was matched by an Estrada left-footed strike in the 16th to seal the deal.
Cal goalkeeper Collin Travasos made four saves that afternoon, and the Bruins fired off 14 fruitless shots. When the Bears are backed into a corner by the sporadically potent UCLA attack, there will be a strong belief among the team that they can emerge unscathed. They have achieved such feats, not only within the touchlines throughout this season but beyond as well.
“They are conditioned to battle through anything that comes their way and emerge from it,” Grimes said. “The struggles and the disappointments of not being able to play last year and have a fall season, or even practice in the fall, has suddenly paid dividends because the guys just don’t let anything disappoint them.”
With a victory this weekend, the Bears will increase their chances of being selected to compete in the NCAA Tournament this postseason. This year’s competition has a limited field, with only 36 slots available rather than the usual 48 slots. Two conferences, the Big West and Ivy League, will be absent from the tournament.
No matter what the selection committee decides, this Cal team has performed above and beyond its abilities, given the circumstances of the last year. Inching one step closer to extending its shortened season would be icing on the cake. Kick off is at 2:30 p.m.
“Soccer is crazy,” Estrada said. “I just know that if we show up, and we take care of business from the first minute, we’ll be okay.”