No. 7 Stanford men’s soccer (12-4-5, Pac-12 7-2-1) lost 3-2 against No. 16 Akron Zips (14-6-2, 1-2-1) on Friday night, falling short after a great second-half comeback in its NCAA quarterfinal match. The men’s soccer team will not repeat its NCAA championship in 2018.
The beginning of the first half was nearly equal as Stanford, the favored team on paper, tried to impose its scheme on the match. Akron proved itself to be a solid team with good strategy and players capable of putting incredible pressure on Stanford’s defense.
It was after a strong but scoreless Stanford offensive progression that Akron reacted with speed, allowing the ball to get to the feet of Zip forward Marcel Zajac, who was completely free of any pressure by the Cardinal defense.
Zajac easily controlled the ball and put it, with a great spin, into the net where redshirt freshman goalkeeper Andrew Thomas could not reach. Akron took a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute.
Searching for a response, the Cardinal were unable to convert on multiple crosses from senior forward Amir Bashti. Freshman midfielder Ryan Ludwick came closer to finding the equalizer after his shot passed just above the crossbar. However, once again, Akron was able to build an almost perfect attack that resulted in Zajac’s second goal of the night, putting the Zips up 2-0 in the 43rd minute.
“We tried to be aggressive,” said Akron’s head coach Jared Embick. “Against Stanford you have to be competing and battling, and if you start to get one step behind, they can start controlling the game. And we started the game well, we managed it probably in the best possible way, getting to the halftime with a 2-0 lead.”
Stanford head coach Jeremy Gunn said, “They are a fantastic team, and you cannot afford to give teams head-starts. They settled into the game better than we did, got the first goal, and after that they were always going to feel more comfortable for the rest of the game.“
The Cardinal appeared to begin the second half in a more positive way. “I just felt in the first half we were waiting for the game instead of taking the game, so I really wanted to encourage the players to go after the game and see what happens,” said Gunn. “In the first half we waited, and we got punished. In the second half we were really assertive, and we played some fantastic soccer and really deserved to get back into it”.
And that is just what happened after the break. Stanford built a solid and collective attack action that led to a penalty. With power, redshirt Junior defender Tanner Beason placed the ball in the net, narrowing Akron’s lead to one goal. At the 56th minute of the game, Stanford still chased 2-1.
In the 67th minute, redshirt freshman Zach Ryan scored the equalizer as Cagan Stadium erupted with great excitement. The score was now 2-2.
Everything seemed to point to overtime as the only possible conclusion of the match as both teams lowered their rhythm with fatigue setting in.
“In the second half we didn’t protect that score perfectly, but given how resilient our team is, when we got 2-2, we went back to play the way we could and found the goal,” said Embick.
The goal was scored with a perfectly managed action. A great cross by Akron’s midfielder Marco Micaletto passed from right to left in the Stanford box, finding the head of Zajac, who put the ball back into the center box. Akron’s forward Colin Biros connected with the ball for a headshot that put the Zips up 3-2 in the 80th minute. The decisive score was the final goal scored in the game.
In the few remaining minutes, Stanford desperately tried to turn to a complete attack mode. However, Stanford’s offensive pressure left huge spaces for Akron’s counterattack progressions, which resulted in two tactic fouls by Stanford.
“They deserved to get to the final four. We congratulate them,” said Gunn. “I think that we fought back, gave everything we had, but then they scored a great goal that won them the game. But, I cannot really complain about anything tonight. I think our boys fought incredibly, and when we got to 2-2, we looked good, but absolutely credit to them for they managed to settle the game down again.”
This game marked the last act of a tremendous season that saw Stanford win the Pac-12 title.
“We had an incredible run this season, and I am so proud of all the ambassadors of the game we had go through the program,” said Gunn. “We enjoyed incredible success with many groups, some incredible student-athletes. The end of this night is nothing I can complain about, nor I can complain about our players.”
Contact Didier Natalizi Baldi at didiernb ‘at’ stanford.edu.