It’s still early, but after upending both USC and No. 3 UCLA in a pair of dominant three-goal wins this weekend, the No. 1 Cardinal women’s soccer team seems to be well on its way to its third consecutive conference title.
Stanford (13-0-1, 5-0 Pac-12) beat the previously undefeated Bruins (10-1-2, 3-1-1) 4-1 in surprisingly easy fashion, and in doing so, put a serious damper on the title chances of a team widely considered the Cardinal’s biggest Pac-12 competition in 2011. The win came less than 48 hours after the squad earned head coach Paul Ratcliffe his 200th career win on Friday, relying on sustained pressure to down the Trojans 3-0.
“Paul’s an awesome coach,” said junior defender Rachel Quon when asked what Ratcliffe meant to the team. “He knows his stuff, and he lets us play soccer–he doesn’t make us do robotic things.”
Stanford needed all the strong coaching it could get last week in a pair of tight 1-0 wins over the Washington schools. And early on against the Trojans, it looked like the Cardinal’s scoring woes would be sticking around, on what was likely to be the most challenging weekend series for the team this season.
Controlling play from the start of the match as it has all year, Stanford didn’t allow a single shot from USC until the 32nd minute while racking up 16 first-half shots and five corners against the Trojans. However, the Cardinal was slowed down by a physical USC squad and was unable to convert early, being stifled on all seven of its shots in the opening 25 minutes.
With halftime approaching, however, Stanford began to find openings in the Trojans’ aggressive defense with the help of some sharp crosses. Sophomore forward Sydney Payne finally broke through with a header goal in the 33rd minute off a corner kick, which had been deflected by senior midfielder Kristy Zurmuhlen.
“Our team really wanted to come out early and get one early,” Quon said. “So we thought that the next couple [of goals] would come soon after that.”
As Stanford continued to gain momentum, Quon proved herself right less than nine minutes later, ripping a long strike off the crossbar and into the back of the net for her first goal of the season.
The Cardinal never looked back. Matching the Trojans’ physicality, Stanford allowed only long looks to USC and nearly connected on several crosses of its own. A breakaway tally by sophomore forward Natalie Griffen with 30 seconds remaining in the match added an exclamation point to the Ratcliffe’s 200th win as a head coach.
But the team’s work on the weekend wasn’t over yet. Ahead was a UCLA squad that represented the Cardinal’s last loss in conference play three years ago.
Things seemed to get off to a nightmarish start for Stanford when sophomore goalkeeper Emily Oliver had to fend off a close-range shot just 30 seconds into the match. Yet despite her heroic save, the Cardinal struggled early to maintain possession, making several poor decisions and failing to put any pressure on freshman goalie Katelyn Rowland.
“It was a shock to our system, because USC dropped off and we had all day with the ball,” Ratcliffe said. “Today, [the Bruins] were high-pressuring, and it took us 15 minutes to figure it out, to get the speed of play right.”
Even when Stanford did get things right, it wasn’t expected to score often against a UCLA squad that, despite having a dozen true freshmen, had played stifling defense and allowed just four goals on the year.
Yet in a shocking rout of one of the nation’s best teams, the Cardinal would double that total in the first half alone.
Collecting a loose ball in the box off a corner kick, freshman forward Chioma Ubogagu put one home to get Stanford on the board after only seven minutes of play. Ten minutes later, senior midfielder Teresa Noyola got control of the ball near the top of the penalty area with some nifty moves and fed Ubogagu, who dribbled in between two Bruin defenders for another close-range goal, her sixth of the season.
But of all the streaks the Cardinal was able to extend on Sunday–25 straight conference wins, 43 consecutive home victories and 57 regular-season matches in a row without a loss–one did come to an end at the hands of the Bruins. Just 28 seconds after Ubogagu’s second tally, junior midfielder Zakiya Bywaters found herself alone in the Stanford box and drilled one low past the outstretched arms of Oliver to get UCLA on the board.
It was the first goal that Stanford had allowed in 685 minutes and 25 seconds, just 90 minutes away from the school record set in 2002-03–and it wouldn’t be the last chance that the Bruins would have to score. Taking risks on a consistent basis throughout the game, the UCLA forwards would have several dynamite opportunities.
What the Bruins had in firepower, however, they lacked on their back end, a fact that the Cardinal would quickly take advantage of. In the 28th minute, senior midfielder Lindsay Taylor took a Noyola pass and showed the sellout crowd why she leads Stanford in scoring, netting her ninth goal of the year with a perfect, off-foot lob that found the net at the far post. And just 12 minutes later, senior midfielder Kristy Zurmuhlen added her third tally of the year on a wide-open shot near the goalmouth, thanks to a perfect feed from junior forward Marjani Hing-Glover.
Though the Cardinal wouldn’t get on the board again, it held the Bruins scoreless in the second half, content with a weekend sweep and one of the squad’s most impressive offensive explosions of the season.
To Noyola, the win showed that Stanford has learned how to decisively beat a strong opponent; the squad has fallen just short in two straight NCAA Finals matches.
“They came out strong, and I think we were a little shaky,” she said. “I don’t think our back line had been tested like that yet, and I think it’s good for us in the long run. I think it shows that we can withstand the pressure, and it shows us also that we need to come out a little bit more alert in the beginning.”
Regardless of the big win, things weren’t all positive for the Stanford coach.
“I think we’ve got to continue to be composed on the ball and be careful that we don’t turn games into track meets,” Ratcliffe said after the UCLA game. “I think today, it got into a back-and-forth game, and that’s when we get stretched a little bit. I want us to keep possession and play smart.”
Stanford will take on Arizona State on the road next weekend, before it plays new conference additions Utah and Colorado in late October.