As No. 4 Stanford women’s soccer (14-2, 7-0 Pac-12) closes its regular season, head coach Paul Ratcliffe will be looking to find small ways to improve a red-hot Cardinal team that has blitzed through conference play. A win over No. 24 USC (12-4-1, 7-1 Pac-12) on Thursday would effectively seal the Cardinal’s first conference title since 2012.
Stanford’s latest victim was Washington, which was able to match the Cardinal’s pace and on-ball skills with a defense that bent but didn’t break for the first 60 minutes. The Cardinal eventually wore down the Huskies, getting goals from freshman Jordan DiBiasi, fifth-year senior Haley Rosen and freshman Alana Cook in a 3-0 victory that fully reflected Stanford’s dominance on the field.
Looking at the Cardinal’s stat sheet, it’s hard to imagine a time in which this team was not the Pac-12-slaying juggernaut it is today.
This season, Stanford has recorded 311 shots while conceding only 96, a testament to both the overwhelming amount of time the Cardinal control the ball and the immaculate play of the Cardinal defense.
However, this statistical dominance hides an uncomfortable fact about the Cardinal: For all their talent, they often seem to be less than the sum of their parts.
Despite ranking seventh in the nation in shots per game, Stanford ranks just 44th in goals per game, a disparity coming from many sources, including tentative finishing, overreliance on crosses and poor shot selection.
While some of these problems have partially resurfaced in the Cardinal’s current eight-game winning streak, it seems like the entire team is playing its best soccer at exactly the right time.
Gone are the days in which Rosen or sophomore midfielder Andi Sullivan had to carry the offense by themselves. Now freshman wingers Michelle Xiao and Tegan McGrady and sophomore Mariah Lee give the Cardinal spark and balance from the outside.
Stanford’s impressive array of quality attacking options is one of the team’s best assets and has allowed for goals from all over the field. Although Rosen and Sullivan still lead the team with 5 goals each, the Cardinal have 10 players who have found the net at least twice. The Cardinal appear to have finally solved their finishing woes by relying on a goal scoring by committee approach that produces new heroes every night.
This offensive parity complements a rock-solid defense that makes even one-goal leads look insurmountable to opposing teams. Junior Maddie Bauer and Cook have been among the best in the country at their center back position, leading a Stanford defense that has allowed just 10 goals in 16 games.
Though the Cardinal are overflowing with talent and seem to be peaking at the right time, the team must continue to make adjustments in order to contend for a national championship.
Ratcliffe consistently preaches that the attack must remain on its front foot and take high-percentage shots with a more clinical approach. The normally-stout Cardinal defense often looks shaky on set pieces, most recently when it conceded an own goal off a free kick against Colorado.
USC provides a good opportunity for the Cardinal to put those adjustments into effect. The Trojans play a similar style to the Cardinal, winning games by ruthlessly controlling possession and conceding very few shots.
Junior midfielder Morgan Andrews, who transferred from Notre Dame before the season, is the centerpiece of the Trojan offense, recording 3 goals and 4 assists so far for USC.
Like Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell, Sammy Jo Prudhomme has done well in her few opportunities, posting a 0.62 goals against average while saving 83 percent of the shots she faces.
The two teams will face off at home on Thursday, Oct. 29, and play will begin at 7 p.m. on Maloney Field.
With the Pac-12 title on the line and the prospects of a College Cup appearance down the road, the Cardinal are showing their playoff form. Their playoff hopes may rest on a difficult question for Ratcliffe and his coaching staff: How do you improve a team that already has everything?
Contact Sanjay Srinivas at sanjay_srinivas ‘at’ stanford.edu.