BERKELEY – For the first time in the storied history of the California men’s soccer program, the Golden Bears have earned No. 1 rankings in two major polls – Soccer America and TopDrawerSoccer.com. Unbeaten with a 5-0-1 record, Cal is also ranked No. 2 in the NSCAA, or coaches’ poll, and No. 4 in the CollegeSoccerNews.com poll.
"For our administration, alumni and soccer community, this is a fantastic moment to have Cal ranked No. 1 in the country,” said Cal head coach Kevin Grimes, now in his 14th season with the program. “I'm sure there is a great sense of pride for them, and there should be. We understand that rankings will have an ebb and flow to them throughout a season. Our players and coaching staff are ambassadors of the greatest academic institution in the world, and we are proud to represent that fact no matter what our ranking may be."
Cal has produced several players who move onto the professional ranks – including 12 who play in Major League Soccer – and many of those alumni are enjoying the Bears’ move to the top of the polls.
“I’m really proud of the group and proud of the program in general because I still feel part of it,” said A.J. Soares, the 2010 Pac-10 Player of the Year who is now a defender with the New England Revolution. “I know the guys will continue to work one game at a time and go step by step because that’s the Cal way. But I’m confident that if this group continues to do the right things, they will build on and surpass what we have done in the past, push the program forward and continue elevating it.”
“As a former player, it’s still great to be able to keep tabs on and see the fantastic start the team has had,” said former Cal forward Calen Carr, now with the Houston Dynamo. “It’s a momentous occasion to be ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in program history.
FC Dallas midfielder Andrew Jacobson, Carr’s former Cal teammate, echoed his sentiments.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jacobson said. “The ranking at this point isn’t really that important, but what is really important is how they go about doing it. Kevin brought his philosophy to Cal, and he does it the correct way – playing good soccer and a purpose. It’s great to see a great style working.”
“I’m incredibly proud, but more than anything it’s not surprising Cal is ranked No. 1,” Carrasco said.
The alums have kept track of the Bears as much as their busy MLS campaigns allow.
“I’ve been following Cal’s games on Twitter and match tracker,” Carr said “and I’m a former teammate of (Cal assistant coach) Leonard Griffin. We lived together when we were both with the Chicago Fire. I touch bases with him to see how the team is doing, so I get more details from him and coach Grimes. We just added Servando Carrasco in Houston, so these are good bragging rights for me and Servando. To boast about having the No. 1 team in the country has been great for us in the locker room.”
“I have the Pac-12 Networks, and I’m good friends with Steven Birnbaum, so I’m really proud of him,” Soares added. “He’s scored a lot of goals already, and he can get a few more, too. I’m really thrilled for the guys. If they can continue playing the Cal way, one game at a time, they can do some really good things this season.”
“I follow the Bears on Twitter, see the scores and read up on the games,” Jacobson said. “I’m in season too, so I don’t get a lot of time to go and watch the games, but any time I’m in the area I go up and see Kevin. I try to go up as much as I can.”
“I actually always follow them," Carrasco said. "I have a couple of buddies on the team who I played with. Steve Birnbaum has been phenomenal this year. It’s great to see him grow as a player and a leader. For a center back to score five goals – that’s an amazing accomplishment. The season’s only beginning, and he’s only going to get more comfortable. Alec Sundly has done very well. Guys are stepping up and growing into their roles. Guys who were freshmen when I was a senior are now embracing the responsibility of what it really means to be a Bear.”
Cal opened the current season in grand fashion, beating two talented teams that played in the 2012 NCAA College Cup in No. 3 Georgetown and No. 2 Maryland. The Hoyas, in fact, beat the Terrapins in the semifinals to reach last year’s championship match. Playing at home on Goldman Field at Edwards Stadium, Cal blanked the national runner-up Hoyas, 2-0, on Aug. 30, with junior midfielder Connor Hallisey scoring the gamewinner. The Bears then rallied to stun No. 2 Maryland, 3-2, on co-captain Alec Sundly’s golden goal in overtime on Sept. 1.
The Bears were unranked entering the year, and the Pac-12 coaches tabbed them fourth in the conference’s preseason poll. But Cal vaulted into the polls the following week, as Soccer America, which ranked Cal No. 4, CollegeSoccerNews.com (No. 5), the NSCAA (No. 10) and TopDrawerSoccer.com (No. 12) all took notice.
Cal won its third straight with a 1-0 result against local rival San Francisco on Sept. 5 on a late goal by freshman Christian Thierjung. With time winding down and the matching seemingly headed to overtime at 0-0, Thierjung scored his first goal as a Bear with 19 seconds remaining to clinch the win.
A long trip featuring major delays to get to University, Pa., preceded Cal’s match at Penn State on Sept. 13. The Bears took a first-half lead on defender Steve Birnbaum’s header, but the Nittany Lions tied the match in the 77th minute. After two overtimes, the game ended in a 1-1 draw.
Cal returned to the cozy confines of Edwards Stadium for its most recent action, as the Bears upended Colgate, 3-0, on Sept. 20 and beat the College of Charleston, 3-1, on Sept. 22. Birnbaum scored yet again with a header against the Raiders and then scored against the Cougars. The latter goal marked the first time in Birnbaum’s Cal career that he scored with his foot in the run of play. This season he has also scored three times on headers and once on a penalty kick.
The play of Birnbaum – a fifth-year senior defender – has been one of the early storylines for the Bears. The Cal co-captain played only 15 minutes of one match in 2012 before he had to sit out the rest of the season due to an injury sustained in the preseason. After earning a medical redshirt, he has played every minute of the 2013 season so far. Along with playing his usual stellar defense, Birnbaum has scored a career- and team-high five goals through six games.
Of his other two career goals, Birnbaum, who currently leads Cal with 11 points, scored on a header in 2010 and on a penalty kick in 2011.
Cal has received strong contributions from several players, including junior midfielder and co-captain Seth Casiple, who leads the team in assists with four, junior Christian Dean, who has made a seamless transition from left back to center back, and redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Justin Taillole. After not playing in an official match before this season, Taillole has started every game in goal for the Bears, posting a stingy 0.64 goals-against average and a .800 save percentage.
The Bears play one more match – against Santa Clara on Friday at 4:30 p.m. – before opening Pac-12 Conference play against Oregon State on Oct. 3 in Berkeley.