Some moments in sports are poetic — the perfect blend of circumstances and chance happenings that lead to a special moment that seems too good to be true.
Playing your rival is always a significant match but can sometimes feel like just another conference game. Playing your rival in the last game of the season with all your postseason hopes riding on a win? That’s poetic.
Cal women’s soccer finds itself in that exact position as it looks to pen itself a fitting ending to an up-and-down season. At 8-6-3 overall but just 4-5-1 in the Pac-12, the Bears absolutely need a win over No. 14 Stanford on Saturday to have even a shot at a postseason berth.
“If we were to be able to win this last game, we would have won four of our last six conference games in the best conference in the country,” said head coach Neil McGuire. “If we win the game, I think we’re certainly going to be part of the discussion for the NCAA.”
While Cal had been one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12 like McGuire stressed, winning three straight games in mid-October, the Bears hit a snag last week in Los Angeles, losing two tightly contested matches to top 10 teams UCLA and USC.
That leaves the blue and gold without a signature win all season, with their best performance coming in a 1-1 overtime tie against now No. 15 Santa Clara early in the nonconference slate.
Now with just one game left in the 2021 season, Stanford lies as Cal’s best — and only — opportunity to prove to the selection committee that it deserves to keep playing. But a win will be no small feat.
“There’s one or two great soccer cathedrals in the country, and Stanford is one of them,” McGuire said. “It’s always a great game between two very, very talented teams.”
Both the Cardinal and Bears will be led by promising goal scorers. On the home side, Stanford junior Maya Doms enters as the Pac-12’s fifth-leading goal scorer with 10 goals. Cal will counter with freshman Karlie Lema, whose six goals account for more than a third of the team’s total offensive output this season.
Generating offense will be a huge emphasis for the Bears, who failed to score during their two games in LA. Scoring goals has been an issue all year for the team, which is averaging a goal a game this season and just 0.78 in conference play.
The defense capabilities of star goalie Angelina Anderson have easily remained Cal’s biggest asset, however. Anderson and the defense’s 0.78 goals against per game ranks third in the Pac-12, and the Bears have completed seven shutouts in 17 games this year.
The team may have to rely on another shutout to emerge victorious this weekend, though, as even a single mistake could cost Cal the game — especially if the offense is struggling.
“One of the best forms of their attack is their ball possession, so the longer we have the ball, the longer they can’t have it,” McGuire said. “Ultimately, it’s going to come down to how we manage the 18-yard boxes. Both UCLA and USC, we didn’t give away a lot of chances, but unfortunately, we gave up one or two critical moments. We have to tidy that up, and then we have to take our own chances inside the 18-yard box.”
Lema, Anderson and the rest of the Cal team will take the field for a 3:30 start Saturday afternoon as they hope for a storybook ending to their Pac-12 slate — one that will keep their season alive a little longer.
Noah Parker covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].