After dropping four of the season’s first six games, the Stanford men’s soccer team had its back against the wall this weekend at the Stanford Nike Classic, as it tried to avoid digging itself too big a hole to recover from on the road to the NCAA Tournament. Two wins over Harvard and Vermont put the Cardinal (3-4-1) right back in the thick of things heading into Pac-12 play next weekend.
Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Vermont was especially gratifying for Stanford, which has had a difficult time holding leads this season. The trend continued as the Cardinal blew an early 1-0 advantage when Yannick Lewis found the back of the net on a corner kick for his fourth goal of the season midway through the first half.
But head coach Bret Simon’s team remained composed, possessing the ball for long stretches of time despite being outshot by the Catamounts 13-6 in the half.
After the break, the Card’s dominant play was rewarded, as redshirt senior midfielder Garrett Gunther wove through the defense and threaded a beautiful through-ball to forward Dersu Abolfathi. The junior reached the ball just ahead of Vermont’s diving keeper and deftly chipped it over the line before being taken out on the play.
Stanford pressed its advantage, earning four corner kicks in the period and several dangerous free kicks as Vermont appeared to tire. But the Cardinal could not capitalize before the final whistle, settling for a much-needed 2-1 win to cap a five-game homestand.
Junior captain Hunter Gorskie, a defender who scored his first collegiate goal and gave Stanford the early lead on Sunday, was pleased with how the team responded after several tough losses to begin the season.
“Going into the weekend, we knew that we had to come out with a couple of good results,” Gorskie said. “We actually felt that as a team we were playing well this season, outpossessing teams, getting plenty of chances. The difference was we got a little grittier, kind of had more of a fighting mentality.”
That mentality was on display early in Friday night’s game, which saw a collision of academic titans as Stanford played host to Harvard. Newly renovated Cagan Stadium was rocking and over 1,750 fans packed the stands, one of the biggest crowds to watch the men’s team in recent years.
Simon’s team responded by pressing the issue from the start. Junior Adam Jahn had a pair of early shots, and Stanford threatened on four corner kicks in the first half. But it was a free kick that put the Cardinal on the board in the 42nd minute, with a long cross from midfielder Eric Anderson finding Jahn’s head in the box for the forward’s second goal of the year.
Anderson has emerged as very real threat on set pieces—the speedy junior has three assists, all on dead balls, and nearly scored on another free kick Friday.
Harvard came out fired up in the second half, picking up its attack and winning the ball in dangerous places. But Stanford’s back four stood up to the test, shutting down the Crimson attack and picking up the first shutout of the season in front of redshirt sophomore goalie Jason Dodson.
“It was a very good defensive effort,” Simon said. “The back four were fantastic— really warriors all weekend against some great athletes, some very tall players. They were not easy matchups, and I was really pleased with the defense, especially since [senior centerback] Tommy Ryan was the only one who started last year. To see them start to gel and work together playing a lot of minutes, I think it’s a good omen,” he said.
With the offense finally starting to click—Stanford had as many shots this weekend as it had in the first four games of the season—and the defense settling into a groove, the Cardinal will have a chance to prove it belongs in the discussion with No. 18 UCLA and defending champion Cal for the Pac-12 title and a trip back to the postseason after missing out on the NCAA tournament last season.
Stanford opens conference play on the road at San Diego State on Friday night, with a trip to face the Bruins looming on Sunday.