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Season in review: A tall tale ended too soon for men’s soccer

(RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

It is said that all good things must come to an end, even though many times it seems all too soon.

The Stanford men’s soccer team entered the 2014 NCAA Tournament firing on all cylinders. A near-flawless run had seen the team rewarded with the Pac-12 trophy and a No. 6 seed in the 48-team cup. Receiving a bye into the second round, the Cardinal men awaited the result of a first-round match to determine their opponent. UC Irvine’s victory over UNLV earned the Anteaters a trip to the Farm. In the end, it was the visitors that would tip the scales, finding a winner in overtime to oust Jeremy Gunn’s outfit.

(RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)
Junior midfielder Ty Thomson (right) work ethic, passing ability and knack for finding space placed him in the team’s rotation early and often. (RAHIM ULLAH/The Stanford Daily)

Despite what could perhaps be labeled as a premature exit for the Palo Alto side, the season was not without its successes. What follows is a look back at Stanford’s most recent campaign, complete with all the highs, lows and looks to the future.

Stanford entered the 2014 season looking for something big. As a side that made a memorable run to the NCAA Round of 16 last fall, it was safe to say that at least equaling that feat was well within the team’s sights.

The Card entered the season with a No. 20 ranking in the national poll, but perhaps gave the first laugh to the critics as they lost 2-0 away at Creighton on opening day. This loss only seemed to awaken the beast, however, as the Cardinal kicked on to win seven matches on the spin, running the table in its non-conference slate of games.

A banner win against Delaware on Sept. 21 reintroduced the Bay Area team to the national eye, as the Card knocked off the then-No. 11 Blue Hens 2-1. The match also served as a Corey Baird coming-out party of sorts, as the silky winger’s first goal in the cardinal and white proved to be the winner.

October brought about the advent of Pac-12 play. With only 10 fixtures in the league system, each game would be of paramount importance in the title race. Match one saw Stanford best a dogged Oregon State outfit 1-0 in a “battle in the trenches” sort of affair, but tougher tests lay ahead. A trip north to Seattle pitted the Card against the then-No. 5 Washington Huskies, a high-flying side that had knocked Stanford out of the NCAA tournament not 11 months prior.

The host Huskies escaped with all 3 points through a 3-1 victory to go the top of the table, as Gunn and his men were sent home with questions to answer. As evidenced earlier in the year, however, a loss seemed to be an exceptional catalyst for the Cardinal.

Stanford went unbeaten for the rest of the regular season, winning its final four games in a run-in that saw three teams vying for the Pac-12 crown. UCLA and Washington had led the chase for much of the season, but sputters from both sides allowed Stanford’s healthy collection of points to slowly trim the gap.

As was only fitting of the season, the title was to be decided on the final day, as all three fixtures kicked off simultaneously. The Cardinal men controlled their own destiny, and knew a win would secure them the title. Standing in their way was a formidable Cal squad playing on its home turf. It seems that Derby Day never fails to disappoint, and this was no exception. A back-and-forth match saw the sides deadlocked after 90 minutes and beyond, until an Austin Meyer shot found the back of the net. Stanford was champion, and seemed to be in scintillating form for the NCAA tournament.

But alas, the Cardinal fell 1-0 to an overtime goal against UC Irvine. Was it a fair result? I guess that depends on who you ask. Sometimes, for better or for worse, that is just soccer. On any other day, the favorite might have prevailed.

Gunn has to be quite pleased with the season, early tournament bow aside, as his team has come quite a distance during his three-year tenure. The past two seasons have seen the Cardinal finish in third and fourth in the Pac-12, and only receive a tournament bid in the second of those two years. Although last year’s NCAA tournament run was a good bit more impressive than that of 2014, the level of Stanford soccer has improved. 2013 saw the men lose five out of 10 Pac-12 matches and finish on 11 points. This year saw them finish on 21 points as champions. It is safe to say that things are looking up for Gunn and his charges.

Gunn will also be pleased with his offensive production this year, as 13 different players were able to find the back of the net. Left back Brandon Vincent made the most of his venturing forward and led all players with 6 goals. Sophomore Jordan Morris, who made headlines for his recent cap with the USMNT, led all players with 6 assists. The striker added 4 goals of his own, an impressive tally in both categories considering his absence from a handful of games due to national team duties.

Junior midfielder Ty Thompson also had himself a stellar season. While his contributions may be invisible to the untrained eye, he was the catalyst that kept Stanford’s engine room churning the whole year. His unparalleled work rate, keen passing ability and knack for finding space were all integral to his side’s success. It seemed all the man would do was either keep possession or win the ball back from the opposition. An often thankless job in soccer, Thompson applied himself with a true workman’s attitude, and was probably one of Gunn’s first names on the team sheet prior to kickoff.

The thing that may make this Stanford squad so special, however, is its depth in quality. Substitutions were nary a worry for Gunn as, at least through the first 16 or 17 on the squad, there was no real drop-off in ability. This sort of squad depth is paramount in soccer, and bodes very well for the future. A rock-solid team of great players who play well together are the teams that achieve greatness. Relying on a couple of superstars is often not sustainable and lends itself to a basket of issues.

As we close the book on the 2014 season, the Cardinal should be excited. An early tournament exit will leave a bitter taste in the mouth, but this team has the makings of something special. And when that clicks, it will be a spectacle to behold.

Contact Will Drinkwater at willydri ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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