Coming off a bye week after a somewhat disappointing road trip to the Pacific Northwest, the Cardinal looks to wrap up its home season in style as it hosts San Diego State and UCLA at Laird Q. Cagan Stadium this weekend. Pac-12 leader and No. 8 UCLA (12-4-1, 7-0-0 Pac-12) comes to Stanford on Sunday with a perfect conference record, needing only one point to clinch the conference title, while No. 20 San Diego State (10-4-2, 4-3-0), which went down 3-0 at home to second-placed Washington last weekend, needs a win on Friday to remain in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth.
The Cardinal’s very marginal postseason aspirations were put to a definite rest two weekends ago as it came up short and failed to make chances pay off against Oregon State and Washington. But while pessimists might say that there’s nothing left to play for and that the season is effectively over, head coach Bret Simon still finds motivation going into the closing stages of the season.
“I think it’s two-fold: We really want to reward the seniors and make sure that they have an opportunity to finish off strong and leave with an impression that they’ve helped the program along,” Simon said. “In addition to that, we’re always looking to the future. We want to give the younger guys confidence going forward and make them realize that they can beat stronger teams.”
Junior defender Hunter Gorskie underlines that the team’s pride and self-respect is paramount in building locker room spirit going into the weekend’s games.
“We play for pride, for the fans,” he said. “We want to put on a good performance for them. The attitude of the guys is that there’s always something left to play for.”
When asked if the possibility of sabotaging their visitors’ postseason chances adds incentive for the players, Gorskie’s eyes lit up.
“It definitely does. We have a good record against them at home, and we want to keep it that way,” Gorskie said, referring to Stanford’s impressive four-game winning streak at home against the Bruins. The Cardinal also beat the Aztecs at Cagan Stadium last season in a 1-0 thriller.
The Cardinal will be looking to overcome its scoring struggles, which have been all too apparent for most of the season — the total count shows just 13 goals in 15 games — by taking a more attacking approach this weekend. Simon has shown stoic faith in his team’s ability to score all season, maintaining that his team is creating chances and playing better and better with each game, but even the patience of a saint must come to an end.
“Typically, I give my teams a lot of freedom,” he said. “This team has had a little less success with that, so we’ve played a little bit more controlled, but we seem to be developing. The guys are playing better and better, so they’ll get more opportunities to make decisions of their own and maybe play a style that’s more attractive.”
With little to lose, it seems like Simon will be fielding a more offensive lineup than has been the case earlier in the season. He emphasizes the importance of his midfield men being on top form, asserting their instrumental role in the offensive game, but also eyes the possibility of others getting more attacking roles.
“[Sophomore midfielder] J.J. Koval and [junior midfielder] Dersu Abdolfathi have had a very good couple of weeks, and they’re going to be main stage in our midfield,” Simon said.
“When they play well, the possession game works way more effectively…We’ve been putting more attacking players on the field at the same time in the last two or three games, and we’re giving our outside backs more freedom to go forward, so theoretically we should have a very offensive-minded team on the field.”
The Cardinal was swept in two tight road games in Southern California in the beginning of October. Gorskie consolidates Simon’s assertion that the team will take a different approach to these games than was the case on the road. When asked whether he thinks the fact that the pressure is off allows for more room to experiment with the playing style, he reacted affirmatively.
“Yeah, definitely, I would say so. Last time around we had the mindset that we were going to play compact and look for the counterattack,” Gorskie said. “This time it will be different.”
Friday’s game against the Aztecs kicks off at 7 p.m., while Stanford will look to upset the Bruins on Sunday at 1 p.m.