One season ago, Cal men’s soccer was on the verge of making program history.
Golden Bears midfielder Stefano Bonomo scored a dramatic game-tying goal in the 50th minute of Cal’s NCAA Tournament Elite 8 matchup with the University of Maryland. As the Bears gained momentum in the second half, the dream of reaching the program’s first ever College Cup final four seemed within reach.
Then in the 86th minute, Maryland dashed the dream. Terrapins freshman Michael Sauers booted a tiebreaking goal from 25 feet out. Cal fell 2-1. Maryland went on to win the national championship. And like the Bears’ other two all-time appearances in the Elite 8, they advanced no further.
“We played an outstanding game,” Cal head coach Kevin Grimes said. “We really had Maryland on their back foot most of the second half and had a number of chances to get the second goal … to hopefully get the victory. And they kind of sucker punched us and scored.”
Cal enters the 2014 season ranked No. 7 in the nation in the NCAA preseason poll. The Bears are poised to again contend for a historic run in the postseason, but they are in the midst of reinventing themselves in hopes of doing so.
Bonomo is central to that reinvention. Entering into his senior season, the former Burlingame star is coming off a junior campaign in which his 15 points and six goals each ranked third on the team in scoring after defender Steve Birnbaum (21 points, 10 goals) and Alec Sundly (20 points, nine goals). Cal scored 38 goals as a team overall.
Birnbaum and Sundly were two of four Cal players to be selected in the MLS SuperDraft, however. With the departure of the formidable tandem, Bonomo becomes the ranking scoring weapon on roster.
“We lost two key center backs, which has been a difficult hole to fill, but I think we’ve found what we’ve needed with this new group coming in,” Bonomo said. “So, I think we’ll be ready for the season.”
After serving as a forward for his three previous seasons in blue and gold, Bonomo is potentially transitioning to defensive midfielder. The move comes on the heels of an injury-plagued end to his junior year.
“We’re going to take a look at him in training and in preseason games at defensive midfield and see how he does,” Grimes said. “He played there in the spring and came along quite nicely. So, we’re going to keep an eye on him in that spot.”
Bonomo has plenty of experience as a midfielder. In his senior season at Burlingame, he won Peninsula Athletic League Midfielder of the Year honors while leading the Panthers to an appearance in the Central Coast Section Division II championship game. This year’s assignment, however, is more defense-oriented than Bonomo has ever been in the past.
“It’s actually completely different than the [position] I played in high school,” Bonomo said. “In high school, I played more attacking midfield. So, I was more on the offensive side. This year at Cal I’m playing defensive inside, so I’m playing a little further back, deeper in the field, closer to my defense. It’s been cool learning a new a position and learning new ways of how to play.”
He will still have ample opportunity to rack up points, however. Sundly played in the same defensive midfielder position last season and ranked second on the team in points.
Bonomo is fully recovered from the injuries which slowed him at the end of last season. It was a pair of injuries which steamrolled him in the final month. First he sustained a bone contusion in his foot Nov. 3 against UCLA. Then after returning to the starting lineup three games later Nov. 13 against Stanford, he pulled his right hamstring, after which he did not start a game for the remainder of the season.
“The guy starting over me at the time was a lot more fit to play,” Bonomo said. “But I was ready to jump in at any given moment. So, it all worked out well.”
After seeing limited action, Bonomo emerged as a scoring factor in the Bears’ final game of the season. After totaling just 89 minutes through Cal’s first two playoff games — a 3-1 win Nov. 24 over Bradley, and a 1-0 win Dec. 1 over Coastal Carolina — he scored the lone Bears goal in their Dec. 7 postseason finale.
Playing nearly a full slate with 78 minutes, Bonomo scored the goal off a strong second effort. The play developed quickly in the 50th minute on a long cross-pass by Dylan Serrano. With a close-range attempt, Bonomo headed what he thought was a surefire goal.
“I thought it was going in, but the keeper made an unbelievable save,” Bonomo said.
Sure enough, Maryland goalkeeper Zack Steffan made a clutch diving stop, but the ball careened off his block. And as Bonomo, Steffan and another Maryland defender tumbled to the ground, Bonomo found the rebound with his foot and chipped it into the vacated goal.
“Stefano was definitely competing and scrapping to put his chance away, which he did,” Grimes said.
Cal did make program history last season with the departure of Birnbaum, as the fifth-year senior was the second overall pick in the January draft by D.C. United, becoming the highest selected player in Cal history. And the 2013-14 draft class became one of the most prestigious in NCAA history, as East Palo Alto native Christian Dean was selected third overall by Vancouver Whitecaps FC.
Since the inception of the SuperDraft in 1996, only two programs have fared better. In 2008, UCLA accounted for the first and third overall picks. In 2011, University of Akron accounted for the second, third and fourth picks.
Bonomo has hopes of continuing the Cal tradition in this year’s draft.
“I’ve just wanted to keep getting better every year here at Cal, and hopefully one day (I’ll get to play professional soccer),” Bonomo said. “We’ll see.”