Top-ranked California is finding out just how strong the Pac-12 Conference has grown this season. With at one point four out of the six conference teams ranked in the NSCAA poll and currently three of the six teams ranked in the top six by the coaches, the Pac-12 has become one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
Third-ranked Washington proved its worth when the Golden Bears and Huskies tied, 1-1, after two overtimes on Oct. 6 in Berkeley. Including that game, Cal had never trailed in a match in 2013 – until the Bears played at San Diego State on Oct. 10. Down 1-0, the Bears rallied to score two late and capture a 2-1 victory.
“The conference has had a real good season overall, and all six teams are playing really well,” Cal head coach Kevin Grimes said. “All of them have the ability to have a good season this year, and that makes the games all that more enjoyable. All the teams we play are competitive.”
Then came the UCLA game on Sunday at Drake Stadium. The Bruins – ranked fifth by Soccer America and sixth by the coaches – gave Cal arguably its sternest test to date. After never trailing in a game until the SDSU match, Cal never led against the Bruins – until the end. That’s when junior forward Stefano Bonomo stuck a golden goal past UCLA goalkeeper Earl Edwards in the 91st minute to give the Bears a 3-2, come-from-behind, overtime win, which aired on the Pac-12 Networks.
With its second straight win, Cal remained unbeaten and improved its record to 9-0-2 (3-0-1 in the Pac-12). UCLA is 7-3-1 (2-1-0 Pac-12).
“It was a great game,” Grimes said. “Both teams played very well today. You can’t ask for anything more than that: Playing in a match that was highly contested, with both teams giving everything they had. We took our chance early in overtime, and we’re pleased with the goal we scored in getting the victory.”
“Once you hit Pac-12s every team steps it up a notch,” Bonomo added. “Every game’s going to be tough, especially both these games down south. Today was really tough. Also we were kind of tired. We just kept believing, kept pushing and kept wanting that goal to tie it and also hopefully win it before overtime. We didn’t do that, but we still won.”
Cal had trailed 1-0, as Victor Chavez scored on a header at 12:41. But junior defender Christian Dean curved a free kick past Edwards to knot the game at 1-1. The Bears then trailed 2-1 on Jordon Vale’s header at 41:29, and the Bruins took the 2-1 lead into halftime.
Some 30 minutes into the second half, Cal still trailed 2-1 when the Bears earned a corner kick. The referee awarded a penalty kick to the Bears after appeared to handle the ensuing corner in the box. Senior defender Steve Birnbaum calmly converted the spot kick at 75:13 to tie the game at 2-2 with his team-high seventh goal of the year.
Still tied at 2-2 after regulation, Cal prepared for its fifth overtime match of the season. At 90:32, senior forward Luis Fuentes and junior midfielder Connor Hallisey combined well on the flank, Hallisey crossed into the UCLA box, and Bonomo slammed his fifth goal of the year past Edwards.
“I was wide open and just finished it,” Bonomo said.
Top-ranked Cal returns to Goldman Field/Edwards Stadium when it hosts Stanford on Oct. 20 in another match on the Pac-12 Networks.