By Kit Ramgopal
Stanford men’s soccer (3-2-3) hosts local rival California (4-2-1) at Cagan Stadium on Sunday for its first conference match of the season.
The defending national champions face their unranked Bay Area rivals, a matchup between a young Cal program that is finally coming of age and a hollowed-out Stanford program that has struggled to fit its pieces from last season back together.
Last week, Stanford seemed to find its rhythm again after the graduation of four starting seniors and the loss of MAC Hermann Trophy winner Jordan Morris to the Seattle Sounders. The men’s team enjoyed a three-win streak against non-conference teams Harvard, Omaha and San Jose State. Junior Foster Langsdorf and sophomore Tanner Beason emerged as consistent offensive threats, combining to score six of the 11 total goals. This statistic shines even in comparison to last year’s gold standard — the Cardinal hadn’t scored three or more goals in three consecutive games since 2001. The emerging talent of the 2016 Cardinal roster caused the nation’s coaches to pick Stanford as the No. 1 NCAA threat according to preseason polling, and that talent may be starting to emerge.
Despite the recent surge, the Cardinal lost their final non-conference match to San Francisco on Friday. This was a humbling loss for Stanford — its first to the San Francisco program in the last eight matchups. It’s a steep slip from grace for Stanford; losing to an unranked San Francisco team is not a good look for the defending national champions as they prepare to enter Pac-12 play.
Now, after falling out of the NCAA rankings, the Cardinal enter their first conference matchup against Cal, which is coming off a win against No. 25 UC Santa Barbara. This was Cal’s first win against a top-25 opponent, and it didn’t come easy. Throughout the match, the Bears trailed twice, relying heavily on sophomore goalie Jonathan Klinsmann to stop the UCSB offense.
Stanford’s defense also will have its hands full with senior forward Christian Thierjung, Cal’s leading goal-scorer for the past two seasons. Just a week ago, he put 5 goals in the back of Harvard’s net to secure a 6-2 victory over Harvard, a team still reeling from a 3-1 loss to Stanford two days earlier.
Cal had just one senior on its roster last season, placing the burden on sophomores and freshmen to control the field from the onset of their collegiate carers. With a 4-4-2 2015 season under their belt, the strong contingent of underclassman talent has a year of confidence with NCAA play that many of its Pac-12 counterparts lack. Meanwhile, Stanford is still in the process of tinkering with the team dynamics to counteract the loss of five starters from last year. These players accounted for 53 percent of the Cardinal’s goals and 48 percent of their assists in 2016, leaving the Cardinal with an offensive vacuum.
Beason, Langsdorf and junior Drew Skundrich have stepped up as leading goal scorers for Stanford within this vacuum, and they will be forced to adapt aggressively to new on-field dynamics if they are to keep up with the demanding tempo of Pac-12 success.
The Pac-12 preseason Coaches Poll has Cal finishing fourth in the conference behind UCLA, Stanford and Washington. This Sunday’s Cal-Stanford game might be a tipping point of the Stanford season — the only question is which way the team will tip. Will Stanford come back into its vicious dynamic from 2015 or begin a slide out of contention altogether? Swing by Cagan stadium at 5 p.m. to watch the action, or watch live on Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Kit Ramgopal at kramgopa ‘at’ stanford.edu.