The Stanford men’s soccer team knows that a lot can happen in a year.
A year ago, Brandon Vincent had not yet been named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, though he became the anchor of a defense that had a .85 goals-against average, the lowest in the conference.
A year ago, Corey Baird had not yet become one of the most promising freshmen in the conference by scoring 4 goals in his first season (including a pair against then-No. 1 UCLA in Stanford’s biggest regular-season game of the year).
A year ago, Jordan Morris had not yet become one of the biggest emerging talents in U.S. soccer by scoring a goal on the national stage in an international friendly against Mexico.
And a year ago, very few would have guessed that the Cardinal — then ranked No. 20 in the country — would develop into one of the most formidable opponents in college soccer — not losing a game at its home field in the regular season — win the Pac-12 and eventually earn the No. 1 ranking in the country before an unexpected second-round exit from the NCAA tournament.
When looking ahead to this season, the team, ranked No. 8 in the NSCAA preseason poll, is not too far removed from the team from a year ago. Seven of the 11 players in the starting lineup for the last game of the 2014 season are returning, including four of the five leading goal-scorers on the team.
With most of the same pieces in play and last year’s impressive season under the team’s belt, things shouldn’t be too different for the Cardinal this year.
Aided by experience, the team is poised to develop even more as a program and potentially make a deeper run in the tournament. Yet for now, Stanford is just focusing on one game at a time.
The team’s early schedule in 2015 involves matchups against strong competition. The official season begins with a pair of games on the road against a UC Santa Barbara team that plays very well at home and No. 18 Louisville.
Things will calm down from there, as Stanford will then play six more non-conference games, all against unranked opponents, with five of the six being played at home.
But once the team enters conference play, it will twice face unranked San Diego State, bubble team Oregon State and a slew of top-ranked teams: No. 16 Cal, No. 10 Washington and No. 1 UCLA — teams Stanford earned a 6-1-3 record against last season.
“I think the key is persistence,” said senior co-captain Ty Thompson. “Last year the team that just kind of stuck with their game plan and just kept going throughout the entire Pac-12 was the one who came out on top and that was us. When we got to the end of the season we just knew what we had was a successful game plan and we just stuck with it.”
“We obviously had a good conference run last year,” Morris said, “so I think if we stick to our core philosophies as a team, just working hard and being a team that’s hard to break down and having some good attacking to go with that, if we stick to that we’ll do really well.”
Despite losing starter Zach Batteer, having a strong attacking core is something that shouldn’t be too difficult given the players that the Cardinal are returning: a trio of familiar names in Baird, Morris and fifth-year senior Eric Verso.
Morris returns to the team with five caps of international play — his most famous one being a start and goal against Mexico– under his belt. The junior is also on the watchlist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, soccer’s Heisman, along with Vincent.
Verso led the team in points last year with 15, on 5 goals and 5 assists, while Baird and Morris each contributed 4 goals of their own.
The group will be joined by a host of others, including true freshman Amir Bashti. Bashti, who has attended the U.S. U-18 national team camp three times, has already scored this season in a 2-0 exhibition win over CSU Bakersfield.
Fellow freshman midfielder Justin Kahl, who started both preseason games, will be another weapon in the Cardinal’s offensive arsenal.
“It’s exciting to have all those guys up there to work with,” Morris said. “We’ve seen it progress over the last two weeks. I think the talent is there we just have to keep molding it and work from there.”
The midfielders will also be anchored by Thompson, a 2014 All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention who started all games of his sophomore and junior years.
On the defensive end, co-captain senior Brandon Vincent, junior Brian Nana-Sinkam and sophomores Tomas Hilliard-Arce and Drew Skundrich all figure to get significant minutes. The defense will have to overcome the loss of Jimmy Callinan, who graduated last year after serving as a co-captain alongside Vincent.
Even with the loss of Callinan, the back line has a tremendous amount of depth and will be a great source of support for returning goalkeeper Andrew Epstein.
“That’s one of the key things that we have as a team: the cohesiveness and how we defend as a unit,” Thompson said.
While the team returns many of its key players in its campaign for a consecutive Pac-12 title and its first ever national title, what may be a difference-maker between last year’s and this year’s Cardinal is the players’ matured mindset and wariness of the dangers of complacency.
“I think last year was a year where the rankings might have been a distraction because they were the first in a while for us,” Vincent said. “But this past year we’ve been through it and we know not to believe any of the hype that goes around it. Ultimately it comes down to how we prepare and how we perform on the field on game day.”
“I think it’s just not getting complacent,” Baird said. “Every game we just try to have the right mentality, coming out firing, not being complacent and settling for ‘Oh, we’re better than this team.’ We’ve got to get out and prove it every day.”
The Cardinal kick off their season on Friday, Aug. 28 at 7:30 p.m. against UC Santa Barbara before traveling to Louisville for a matchup against the No. 18 Cardinals on Monday, Aug. 31 at 4:30 p.m. The team will then returning to the Farm for a three-game homestand next week.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.