Pac-12 men’s soccer came to a scintillating climax Sunday afternoon, with No. 3 Stanford controlling its own destiny, as a win would clinch the league title over challengers UCLA and Washington. Head coach Jeremy Gunn’s side travelled across the Bay, where a No. 11 California team awaited, to complete the return fixture of the Big Derby. After having been unable to earn a point in its previous two matches, the Berkeley outfit would have been keen to get a result with NCAA tournament selection on the horizon. A riveting contest required two overtimes to find a winner, with the Cardinal ultimately winning the game — and the conference — by a score of 3-2.
The scoring opened in the 13th minute, as Stanford winger Corey Baird beat his marker through an intricate one-two with Eric Verso and burst into the box. Cal keeper Alex Mangels was quick off his line, however, and deflected Baird’s effort. The ball then fell back to Verso in front of the goal. The LA Galaxy Academy product was then able to put a right-footed effort past a helpless Bears center back. Verso, who was inserted into the starting 11 due to a Jordan Morris national team call-up, seemingly vindicated his selection to Gunn.
Stanford was able to keep up its quality and work rate after the goal, and looked likely to add to its advantage. Winger Bobby Edwards was especially impressive on the dribble and caused the Cal defense fits the entire afternoon.
The Golden Bears were not going to lie down easily, however, as the 26th minute saw Stefano Bonomo receive a ball on the top of the box, make a cute half turn and send a shot to the far post out of the reach of Stanford keeper Andrew Epstein.
Stanford was quick to respond to the equalizer, as Edwards continued to shift through the gears.
It was Edwards who drew the foul that led to Stanford’s second goal, as he was brought down about 25 yards out after a scorching solo run. Midfielder Ty Thompson stood over the ball and delivered an inviting cross to the back post for a waiting Brian Nana-Sinkham, who chose a fantastic moment to record his first goal of the year. The sophomore center back rose the highest and directed a headed effort back across goal to send the Cardinal a goal in front at the break.
The early second half was characterized by high pressure from the away side. Baird was quite effective in an uncustomary central role, combining passing and dribbling skills to ignite the Cardinal offense.
As the game began to stretch, Gunn was willing to go deeply to his bench to keep his charges fresh. The game had opened and become quite end-to-end, with each team looking to land a killer blow.
Stanford seemed to be in control as the final 20 minutes approached, but a defensive blunder gave the hosts a lifeline. Cardinal midfielder Slater Meehan failed to deal with a flick into the box, and instead let the ball run behind him into the feet of Bobby Sekine, who slotted home to tie the match.
Both sides had clear chances to win in the final 10 minutes, but lacked the quality to find the back of the net. An Austin Meyer free kick was headed onto the bar, while Sekine nearly doubled his tally for Cal in a one-on-one with Epstein.
The first period of extra time was more memorable for a typical Big Derby flash point, as Meyer confronted a host of Cal players after Baird was kicked near midfield. Cal captain Seth Casiple was shown the yellow card for the offense.
On 98 minutes, Edwards went close on a spectacular volley from 25 yards for Stanford, but the shot bent wide.
It only took three minutes of the second period of extra time to send the Cardinal players into rapture. Baird made a darting run inside from the left flank and cut back a pass to Meyer, who was waiting on the penalty spot. The senior took one touch and slotted the ball past the keeper. It was a deserving winner, as Stanford had looked the better team for most of the match.
The three points were enough to give Stanford its first Pac-12 league championship since 2001, and extend the Card’s unbeaten run to nine matches.
The match was a perfect ending to conference play. With both sides poised to make the NCAAs, this was the last chance to impress the selection committee, and to be fair, both sides gave a great performance. In the end, however, the Cardinal played like true champions and created a winner through an opportunistic finish.
Contact Will Drinkwater at willydri ‘at’ stanford.edu.