Around this time last season, the Pac-12 was in a different place.
Stanford was in the midst of a historic season and was on its way to regaining national relevancy, making its climb up the rankings and eventually into the top 10. Cal was a force to be reckoned with in the Pac-12, while teams such as Washington and UCLA reigned as the best teams in the conference as well as the country. Meanwhile, Oregon State ended its season with eight losses and was not even ranked.
But much has changed since then, as is evidenced going into this weekend, when No. 3 Stanford men’s soccer (8-1-0, 1-0-0 Pac-12) will look to assert its conference dominance when it takes on Pac-12 foes No. 17 Washington (5-2-3, 1-1-0) and No. 16 Oregon State (7-3-0, 2-0-0) at Cagan Stadium.
Now the positions have been reversed: Stanford is a power in the conference and the country, with no other Pac-12 teams in the top 15, and seems to be the team to beat.
After dropping their season opener, the Cardinal have won eight games in a row, the second-longest active streak in the country. In addition, the streak marks the most consecutive victories the program has earned since 2001, when it earned nine.
While Washington and Oregon State may be some of the most challenging teams Stanford will face in the Pac-12 — and are the only other nationally-ranked teams in the conference — the Cardinal will counter with what seems to be their most well-rounded team in years.
The Stanford defense has built upon its strong foundation from past years, having already posted five shutouts and coming in at seventh in the country with a 0.54 goals against average.
But it is not only junior Andrew Epstein’s performance in the goal that has made the difference for the team; in fact, Epstein has only been called upon to make 16 saves so far, which averages out to 1.78 saves per game, second-lowest in the NCAA.
He has been protected by an organized and disciplined line of defenders — senior Brandon Vincent, sophomore Tomas Hilliard-Arce, junior Brian Nana-Sinkam and sophomore Drew Skundrich — who not only protect the goal but also keep the ball away from Stanford’s side of the field and fuel the Cardinal offense.
While junior forward Jordan Morris immediately comes to mind when thinking about the team’s attacking core — after all, he leads the team with 4 goals — other people have stepped up to score, both while Morris is on the field and when he has been absent due to his commitments with U.S. Soccer. (In fact, Morris is currently playing with the U.S. U-23 team in the Olympic Qualifying Championship and will miss this weekend’s games.)
Sophomore forward Foster Langsdorf has had a breakthrough season, notching 3 goals — all of which were game-winners — after only scoring 1 in 13 games last season. The team also has five other players who have scored at least 1 goal — whether it be Hilliard-Arce and Vincent on set plays or penalty kicks, sophomore Adam Mosharrafa with his first collegiate goal, or fifth-year senior Eric Verso, who, after only notching 1 goal in 2015, has contributed 4 assists.
Feeding these goals has primarily been sophomore forward Corey Baird. While Baird was one of the top scorers for Stanford last year, he has seen his role shift, as he is now the top assister on the team with 6, three of which have gone to Langsdorf.
Though Stanford is 1-0 against ranked teams this season (having beaten then-No. 18 Louisville in its second game of the season), the Pac-12 teams the squad will face this weekend may provide some trouble for the Cardinal, who mostly cruised through their non-conference schedule.
While Washington has lost a bit of steam since last year, it is still hanging around the top 20 and may have been even stronger if senior midfielder James Moberg hadn’t gone down with a knee injury. Despite having sat out the last four games, Moberg remains in the lead for most goals on the team with 3. However, the Huskies have struggled in his absence, going 1-2-1, including a 3-2 loss to unranked UCLA in penalty kicks.
The team’s defense, however, may balance a depleted offense: It has only allowed 7 goals this season and has posted seven shutouts in 10 games.
After taking on the Huskies, the Cardinal will take on Oregon State. Following a three-game loss streak, the Beavers rebounded with two wins in its last two games– one of which being a double overtime victory over UCLA. Sophomore forward Timmy Mueller leads the team with 6 goals, while fellow forward Jordan Jones, a sophomore, comes in behind him with 4.
“[We just have to] bring our A-game every single game, can’t take any games for granted,” Verso said when looking ahead to conference play. “Every minute that we’re on the field we have to be ruthless in attacking. We see ourselves as looking to win every single game, so we can’t settle for ties. We have to go out there and every minute, even if we’re up a goal, two goals, go for the next one and try to bury teams rather than letting teams hang around and maybe get unlucky.”
Stanford will play the Washington Huskies on Friday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m., followed by the Oregon State Beavers on Sunday, Oct. 11 at 1 p.m. Both games will be played at Cagan Stadium and will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.