The Stanford men's soccer team opened Pac-10 play Friday night by hosting undefeated and #3 ranked California at Maloney Field. The contest, which promised to be an exciting offensive match, lived up to its billing. Stanford came out very strong and dominated from the outset, controlling possession in the midfield and winning 50-50 balls regularly. Senior Darren Fernandez set the tone for the Cardinal early by establishing his position near the Cal 18-yard penalty area, and served warning to the Golden Bear defense by taking some hard shots from long range.
Though the Cardinal appeared to be in control, luck was not on their side. In the 16th minute Cal took advantage of a breakaway and forced goalkeeper Robby Fulton to handle the ball outside of his penalty area. The senior co-captain was forgiven by the referee and was not directly ejected from the game. But on the ensuing free kick, Nick Hatzke scored past a diving Fulton to put the Golden Bears up 0-1.
Cal increased its lead again five minutes before halftime when an errant corner kick deflected off of Fernandez for an own-goal and a 0-2 deficit going into the break.
The two goals were a tough turn for the Cardinal, who had outplayed Cal for all but two moments and still found themselves trailing. For a team that prides itself on defense, and that had shut out opponents in six of eight games to this point in the 2004 season, it would have been easy to let deception get the best of the strong soccer exhibited on the pitch.
But make no mistake of it – this team is different from the one that finished 3-15-2 last year. In the last contest between these two teams in November 2003, Cal came away with a 1-0 victory at Maloney Field to finish off Stanford's winless conference season. The Cardinal did not want to repeat that result in front of its home fans. After the game, senior defender Seyi Abolaji said no one talked of losing in the locker room. "We knew we weren't going to lose. There was no question about it. Coach [Bret] Simon told us what we needed to do, and we were ready."
The second half showcased Stanford's resiliency. Though Cal's defense refused to break, Stanford did not become discouraged and continued to pressure forward, out-shooting the Bears 5-1 in the second period. Redemption came in the form of a gift from the referee, who awarded a dubious penalty kick to Stanford with 18:15 to play. Senior Matt Janusz converted to close the gap to 1-2.
The pace of the game increased suddenly as Cal attempted to rebound from the blow. Neither team could capitalize on the intensity, and the seconds ticked off toward the final whistle.
Finally, with just over a minute on the clock, Seyi Abolaji broke free down the left wing and took advantage of two Cal defenders with some nifty ball handling before dropping off a perfect pass at the six-yard box. After a deflected shot, Darren Fernandez redeemed his earlier mistake and headed a floater into the net.
The goal set off a rapturous celebration on the field and in the stands. Neither team could break the tie in 20 minutes of sudden-death overtime, but the Cardinal came away with one hard-earned point to open the Pac-10 season. Stanford is now 5-1-3 on the season and will continue conference play with a road trip to the Northwest, as they face Oregon State and Washington this weekend.
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