In the late stages of overtime, a player dressed in UCLA powder-blue kicks a beautiful, arcing ball that soars gloriously over half the length of the field and lands neatly at the feet of his teammate. The ball only remains on the ground a few short milliseconds before it is again launched into the air, this time connecting with the underside of the crossbar and taking a fateful bounce across the line and into the goal. Game over. Dozens of players wearing blue jerseys sprint from all over the field to come together and celebrate an electrifying victory.
In short, it was a beautiful scene in college soccer, a thrilling competition that came down to the last touch. But if you’re from a Stanford team in need of a victory to keep its postseason chances alive, you probably see things differently.
The Cardinal (7-8-1, 3-4-1 Pac-12) headed into Los Angeles on Thursday night looking to use the momentum from last week’s overtime victory at UC-Santa Barbara to score an upset against the No. 5 Bruins (12-2-2, 7-1-0). With the end of the regular season rapidly approaching, Stanford’s players knew they would probably have to win out to have a chance at making the NCAA tournament.
Their dreams were likely thwarted Thursday night with a 2-1 defeat, but not before Stanford challenged the heavily-favored Bruins to an exhilarating, double-overtime match in which the Cardinal controlled a significant portion of the game.
The game started at a quick pace with sophomore Zach Batteer forcing a save from UCLA keeper Earl Edwards, who would prove to be very active throughout the game as Stanford continued to press on the attack.
Just 16 minutes into the game, UCLA got on the board when it executed perfectly on a corner kick and was a little fortunate. Hutchins managed to save the first attempt off a header from junior Joe Sofia but couldn’t hold the ball, and Victor Chavez was there to volley in the loose ball.
With the lead, the Bruins played back on the ball, staying conservative to avoid getting burned on the counterattack. It appeared that this strategy was working and that UCLA was going to get out of the game with an easy victory, but Stanford started to wear down the Bruins’ defense toward the end of the half.
In the 33rd minute, freshman Ty Thompson was able to sneak a ball past the defense to Hunter Gorskie, who drilled the ball in for what looked like the equalizing goal. Unfortunately for the Cardinal, Gorskie could only celebrate for a matter of seconds as the play was blown dead for offside.
In the closing seconds of the half, Zach Batteer broke away on a counterattack and gave the team a good rush of confidence going into halftime.
Head coach Jeremy Gunn reflected his team’s confidence at halftime, saying he still expected to win out and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament.
“I think you’ve written us off too early,” he told the Pac-12 Network’s Cobi Jones. “If we win all three of these games we’ll be flying up the RPI’s with a chance to get into the tournament.”
The second half was all Stanford. The Cardinal came up with a number of close opportunities. Adam Jahn broke free for a good shot in the 49th minute but had it blocked by the UCLA defense; minutes later, J.J. Koval snuck past for a close range shot but had it blocked by the keeper; in the 63rd minute, Dersu Abolfathi got off two shots but neither was able to get past the Bruin defense.
The equalizer came in the 73rd minute off a throw-in, when Koval’s volley got past the keeper to the far post, netting the team’s first goal of the game and his second of the second season.
The rest of the half was tightly contested, but neither team was able to come up with the deciding goal. Batteer came close, though, receiving the ball at the top of the box and forcing a save from Edwards. The Bruin keeper was called into duty twice more, once on another strike from Batteer and again on an attempt by Jahn.
The Cardinal could breathe a sigh of relief when UCLA forward Reed William’s 88th-minute shot sailed just over the top of the Stanford goal. At the end of regulation, it would remain 1-1.
In the eighth minute of overtime, Aaron Kovar came inches from hitting the golden goal as his shot missed just wide of the woodwork.
Stanford goalie Drew Hutchins made a highlight-reel kind of play to fend off the Bruins a little longer, diving to his left to deflect forward Ryan Hollingshead’s strike at goal. The junior made one more save in the first overtime, allowing the team to regroup for second overtime.
After 102 full minutes of play, in just the third minute of second overtime, the Bruins struck the brutal blow. Off a perfect pass by senior Chris Cummings, forward Fernando Monge broke free of the Stanford defense and fired off a game-ending shot from directly in front of the Cardinal net.
As the UCLA players rushed out onto the field to celebrate, the Stanford players began to realize that their hopes at a postseason had all but faded. Despite the disappointing result, however, Stanford did anything but fold under pressure.
Stanford will travel to San Diego State on Saturday for a 7 p.m. road contest, in need of a win and some help from the NCAA selection committee.