The Stanford men's soccer team has not yet played 10 games in this young 2004 season, but the stunning changes from last year are readily apparent to any diehard supporter or casual fan. At this point last year, the Cardinal stood disappointingly on a 2-5-2 record having scored only five goals. Now the landscape is vastly different.
The Cardinal opened the Pac-10 season with a dramatic come-from-behind 2-2 tie at home against California last Friday, October 1 (link to recap). They have treated their fans to a 5-1-3 (0-0-1 Pac-10) start, regained their elite status in national polls, and played the type of soccer that Stanford fans have grown to expect over the past few years.
In a preview article published in the September issue of The Bootleg Magazine, I diagnosed the ills that plagued the men's soccer team, and gave suggestions for how they could rebound. The Cardinal has met and exceeded my expectations, but there are still areas that could use some improvement. First, the positives:
- The freshman class of 2008 is one of the most talented groups of players to arrive on the Farm in recent memory. Four freshmen – Dan Shapiro, Evan Morgan, Mark Bartlett, and Scott Bolkan – have seen significant playing time, and the veterans have adapted well to the youthful infusion of energy. In addition, two transfers – Cooper McKee (St. Louis) and Jason Griffiths (Middlebury) – have established themselves as steadfast members of the starting line-up.
- The defense seems not to notice the absence of Chad Marshall, who left Stanford in the off-season to pursue his professional soccer career. Supported by the spectacular goalkeeping of senior Robby Fulton and sophomore Andrew Karntunen, Stanford has shut out six opponents. The one constant in Coach Bret Simon's starting line-up is the starting four defenders: Griffiths, junior Seyi Abolaji, senior James Twellman, and junior Bronson McDonald. Their tactical and disciplined approach to stopping offensive advances has been extraordinarily effective, and when substitutes have been called upon to step in, they have done so seamlessly.
- Offensively, senior forward Darren Fernandez has returned to his fine form that he showed three years ago. Fernandez leads the Cardinal with five goals and one assist, including the game-tying header in the final minute against Cal last week. He paces a new-look Cardinal offense that has scored 11 goals, already more than half the total from all of last year. One reason for the turnaround, and a signature element of the new game plan, is the incorporation of the two outside defenders – Abolaji and McDonald – into the offensive attack. Friday's Cal match offered a great case study: Abolaji attacked up the left wing all game long. His speed caused fits for Golden Bear defenders; his presence gave Stanford a numerical advantage in the midfield; and that imbalance led to numerous chances on goal. In fact, the equalizing goal resulted from Abolaji's superb run to the corner where, after deftly dribbling past two fullbacks, he fed Fernandez alone in front of the net.
Though the team is much improved, a few worrisome points keep showing up:
- In their last two big matches against Santa Clara and Cal, the Cardinal were victimized by unforgivable mental mistakes. Following an opening goal by the Broncos, Stanford's Jason Griffiths vented his frustration by harshly tackling an opponent, resulting in a direct send-off and a one-match suspension. The Cardinal were forced to play the remaining 40 minutes shorthanded and as such were unable to mount a comeback against an eminently beatable opponent. Against Cal, a poorly played breakaway and an own-goal put Stanford in an 0-2 hole going into the half. Were it not for those defensive mistakes, Stanford's amazing comeback would have resulted in a win rather than a tie.
- It is still unclear how the Cardinal will respond to adversity. They will need mental toughness to rebound from a losing streak. They will need constant intensity to affront a very challenging Pac-10 schedule. Assuming they return to the College Cup, they might need to relearn the maturity required to win an elimination tournament. It appears that this year's senior leadership has pulled the team together after disappointing showings, and the second half comeback against Cal showed toughness, intensity, and maturity unknown since the Cardinal last advanced to the Final Four in 2002.
The Cardinal travel to Oregon State and Washington this weekend to continue their Pac-10 season against two very tough teams at two very hostile venues. If they can win both matches, they will return to The Farm in fine form for the huge weekend home-and-home series against arch-nemesis UCLA (a rivalry that will warrant a further column).
The men's soccer team has made great strides but the players are not satisfied with where things stand. It's a wonderful sign for us soccer fans, and it gives hope that the good results will continue through the Pac-10 season.
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