A season in 3 parts: Cal men’s soccer makes something out of nothing

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Last October, the Cal men’s soccer team was hardly a team at all.

At the time, the Bears were prohibited from holding official practices due to the city of Berkeley’s COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. As the last team in the Pac-12 to resume training, Kevin Grimes’ squad had to improvise. Groups of players held unofficial, self-led training sessions at city parks and tennis courts while dealing with the stresses of work, online school and the health of friends and family members.

When a 10-game schedule was announced in late January, there was relief. But given the fact that Cal had only just returned to a regular training schedule in mid-January, the team still felt underprepared.

The Bears unsurprisingly stumbled through the first few steps but found their footing on the heels of a difficult loss in Corvallis, Oregon. Here’s how the historic, albeit mediocre, 2020-21 season unfolded, and how Cal redeemed itself after hitting rock bottom early on.

Before Corvallis

The Bears lost their first three games by a total score of 9-1.

Even the experienced head coach Kevin Grimes, gaffer of the Cal men’s team for 21 seasons, seemed at a loss. Then, after Cal’s 3-1 defeat to Stanford in its opening game, striker Tommy Williamson, who was drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes in January, suddenly departed for a loan spell with a USL Championship team, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Exactly one week later, Washington handed Cal a 2-0 loss.

“The coaches were just really encouraging. That’s the biggest thing that I took away from it all. … They knew it was a hard time for all of us and that it wasn’t going to be our prettiest soccer season,” said starting center back Ian Lonergan. “They were like, ‘You know what, we’ll figure it out as it goes. So just keep pushing yourselves and we’ll try and keep pushing you guys.’ ”

Playing their first two organized matches against two of the best Pac-12 programs of the last decade, the Bears found themselves reeling before they could blink. Unfortunately for them, a trip to Oregon State the following week became much more than that: It was a rude awakening.

At Corvallis

On March 6, Cal made its way up to Corvallis, Oregon, to play then-No. 8 Oregon State. According to starting goalkeeper Collin Travasos, the team arrived late to the rain-soaked Paul Lorenz Field. Winless, wet and wary, the Bears took the field. By the 34th minute, they were down 3-0. Cal found itself unable to mount any semblance of a comeback in the remaining 56 minutes, and ultimately suffered a brutal 4-0 defeat.

After the game, when asked about his team’s performance, Grimes defended his team by pointing to an inadequate preseason.

“These teams are ahead of us, in some ways, with how much they trained in the fall. And so we just have to continue to chip away at getting ourselves back into game form,” Grimes said. “We don’t have a secret powder to sprinkle on the guys and just instantaneously get them back into game form. That’s going to come through time.”

But, nearly halfway through the abbreviated season, Cal was running out of time. Drastic changes were not just welcome; they were necessary.

According to Lonergan, instead of pushing the players harder in training, the coaches decided to take a step back and allow the players to motivate themselves. Senior players were encouraged to take the reins in team talks before games. Lonergan also noted that, ironically, training sessions became more lighthearted after the nightmare trip to Corvallis. With nothing to lose, the Bears knew the fate of their season was totally up to them.

“I think it was huge for us that some of the older guys had a little bit of leeway to push the guys instead of hearing it all the time from the coaches,” Lonergan said. “The coaches knew that we kind of needed to pick it up ourselves, especially after those first few games. It wasn’t going to come from them; it had to come from us and it had to come from us believing in ourselves.”

After Corvallis

That grit was the catalyst for the next week’s come-from-behind, roller coaster-like victory over then-winless San Diego State, which marked Cal’s first win of the season. The match was slated to be another heartbreaker until Arman Samimi scored the match winner in the 81st minute.

“If we hadn’t gotten a win (at SDSU), it could have been a long season,” Travasos said. “That was a big one to pull through. We still had some adjustments to make for sure.”

A win, regardless of its merit, was all that the Bears needed to reverse the course of their season. The following week, a hard-fought draw against Stanford sealed a three-match unbeaten turnaround that not only demonstrated Cal’s remarkable improvement throughout that spell but also gave the Bears a shot at making the postseason tournament.

A high point of the season came March 28 when the Bears pulled off the most unlikely of upsets over then-No. 3 Oregon State with a score of 1-0. A defensive master class led to Cal’s defining moment of the season, a far cry from the drubbing in Corvallis earlier that month.

“The whole team was pretty fired up then,” Travasos said. “After the long offseason and the tough start, getting four (positive results) in a row and stringing those together … was like, ‘Here we are, let’s go.’ ”

Cal’s season ended with a 3-4 overtime loss to UCLA on April 17 that put the Bears out of the running for the NCAA tournament. As disappointing as the loss was, it was also indicative of the team’s seven-week-long change for the better.

A full and comprehensive offseason, Cal’s first in a long while, is of top priority to take its successes of the latter half of this season into the next. July marks the beginning of captain-led training, minus the stragglers who are training with professional programs across the country. In August, the whole team begins two-a-days and sets its sights on a better and brighter 2021-22 season.

“For me especially, there’s a fire burning under my belly,” Lonergan said. “I think that ‘Why not?’ slogan is kind of my motto for this season. I’ll do everything I can in my power to push the team and get everybody going. We’ve shown that we can beat any team in the Pac-12 and also beat teams outside of the Pac-12, so why not do something super special this year?”

William Cooke covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]. Spencer Golanka covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.