The best teams in sports are the ones who can adapt. Whether it’s switching up game plans, rearranging lineups or making live tactical adjustments, details matter — which, oftentimes, determine who reaps the spoils of victory.
In other words, to win is to focus not just on the destination but on the journey as well. For the Cal women’s soccer team, that focus is weighted evenly across all three fronts of the field, to every little play in between a period of 90-plus minutes.
But Thursday, Sept. 16, Cal lost its focus in extra time and fell to UCI, 0-1, at Edwards Stadium. Three days later, Sept. 19, the Bears bounced back on the road and convincingly battered Long Beach State, 2-0.
For most of the former game, the blue and gold back line remained steady in a 4-3-3 formation. Seasoned veterans such as senior defender Abena Aidoo, senior Sydney Collins and redshirt senior Emily Smith found their footing early on through opportune clearances and winning tackles. Those details added up by the end of both halves, as the stifling defense subsequently sparked offensive charges. While UCI was held to zero shots, Cal fired off 11.
“Our team has a very experienced back line, so we hold a lot of trust in our defenders to get the job done,” said senior midfielder Paige Metayer. “Day in and day out, they prove that they’re one of the best back lines in the conference.”
For the most part, the Anteaters appeared to be outclassed by the Bears. For every errant pass made by UCI, Cal nearly capitalized on its set pieces and aerial attacks. And for each attempted offensive strike by the visitors, the home team countered with multiple shots of its own.
But to UCI’s credit, 90 minutes wasn’t quite enough time for Cal to seal the deal. By the start of the first overtime period, a rejuvenated Anteaters squad took full advantage of the Bears’ lethargy. Just two minutes in, UCI tested Cal junior goalkeeper Angelina Anderson for the first time in the match: A kick from forward Destinee Manzo off of a breakaway opportunity sent Anderson flying to narrowly punch away the ball in time with one hand.
In the 103rd minute, the Anteaters broke loose. Off of a grounded assist from midfielder Scarlett Camberos, UCI forward Julia Gonzalez fired away, pocketing a laser in the top right corner of the net past Anderson to hand Cal its first loss of the season on a golden goal. After a heartbreaking end to a game that was mostly one-sided, the Bears decided they had to seek vengeance over the weekend.
“It was a wake-up call for us –– having our games canceled the week before and being undefeated previously. Getting that one loss in double OT really lit a fire underneath us,” Metayer said. “Knowing that we had to scrape out a win in order to look forward to the postseason set us up on the right track.”
Under the backdrop of a crisp Southern California sunset, the Bears rained on the Beach at George Allen Field. For the first 45 minutes, the game looked very similar to blue and gold’s performance three days prior. This time in a new 4-2-4 formation, Cal’s offense was gifted scoring opportunities left and right first by its back line, then by its playmaking midfielders.
Such tactics ultimately kept the ball steadily in the control of the Bears throughout the early evening. Freshman midfielders Marleen Rohde and Noelle Bond-Flasza, alongside Metayer, earned valuable minutes advancing the Bears forward by juking out defenders.
“We came out against Long Beach doing something tactically that we’ve never done before, and that was playing a new formation,” Metayer said. “As a midfield group … Our role is to disrupt the build of the other team and, on the offensive side of things, be a catalyst moving forward in order to create opportunities.”
In a turn of events, after firing off 13 total shots, Cal was remarkably held scoreless in the first half thanks in large part to LBSU goalkeeper Morgan Houston-Shepherd, who later suffered an injury on the field in a collision with forward Abby Borchers. Nevertheless, the Bears were relentless with their attack, and –– by the 52nd minute –– the persistence paid dividends.
A perfect through ball assist by sophomore forward Amaya Gray set up freshman forward Karlie Lema to score, who slotted the ball past a running Houston-Shepherd and into the back of the net. It was her third goal in just six total games with Cal.
Three minutes later, Gray was fouled inside the penalty area by LBSU defender Kaitlin Fregulia. Freshman forward Ari Manrique, who took the penalty kick, nailed it through the right side of the net to earn her first goal as a Bear and bring her team up 2-0.
With a victory and a loss over the past week, Cal now stands 4-1-2. Its next game against Colorado on Sept. 25 will mark the start of Pac-12 conference play. Though the team has already shown vast amounts of improvement since last year, the blue and gold must continue to make adjustments if they want to prove that they deserve to be among the best of the best.
Ryan Chien covers women’s soccer and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.