Seventeen wins down, the most recent of which came against the top team in the nation, two to go and a national title — the first for the program — on the line.
Eighth-seeded Stanford men’s soccer (17-2-2) has the opportunity to make history this upcoming weekend, when it will compete in its first College Cup — the final four of the NCAA tournament — since 2002. A win in the semifinal game against fourth-seeded Akron will pit the team against either second-seeded Clemson or sixth-seeded Syracuse, and a victory in the finals would grant the program its first ever national title.
While Akron (18-3-2) has been one of the most successful programs in men’s soccer history, appearing in 30 NCAA tournaments and most recently making it to the title games in 2009 and 2010, Stanford’s program has been more of a recent success story, making the NCAA tournament the past three years.
Leading Stanford will be perhaps some of the best talent the program has seen in years, most of whom will be donning their Stanford jerseys for the last time this weekend: Not only are seniors Eric Verso, Brandon Vincent, Slater Meehan, Ty Thompson and Adrian Alabi graduating, but junior forward and USMNT player Jordan Morris could very well be playing his last collegiate game if he decides to leave The Farm for the MLS next year.
This year has been the most successful year for that group of seniors and for head coach Jeremy Gunn, a testament to the team’s ability to build over the past few years and now reap the benefits with its most impressive results in recent history.
While the previous two years were marked by early third- and second-round exits, the Cardinal made it to the College Cup this year with a pair of 3-1 wins, the first over Santa Clara and second over Ohio State, as well as their most recent upset over top-seeded Wake Forest. Stanford’s two leading scorers — Morris and sophomore forward Foster Langsdorf — accounted for both goals in the team’s win, notching their 11th and seventh goals of the season, respectively.
Against Wake Forest, Stanford struck first with an early goal from Morris, but the Demon Deacon’s goal off a penalty kick in the 70th minute tied the game and forced it to overtime. While Vincent missed a penalty kick of his own off the crossbar that would’ve won the team the game, a header from Langsdorf in the 97th minute sealed the win and the team’s trip to the national semifinal.
Morris and Langsdorf have accounted for 46 percent (18 of 39) of the team’s goals this season and together have 9 game-winners. Morris, in particular, has been one of the most consistent scorers as of late, notching 10 goals in his past 12 games with the team.
Setting up Morris, Langsdorf and others for success have been two of the nation’s top assisters: sophomore Corey Baird, whose 11 assists make him tied for seventh in the nation, and Verso, who is tied for third with 12. Baird also scored a goal in the team’s third-round game against Ohio State.
But Akron has some offensive machines of its own, including five players with 8 or more goals: Richie Laryea and Adam Najem have 11 and 10 goals, respectively, while Sam Gainford, Stuart Holthusen and Victor Souto have 8 apiece. Stanford, on the other hand, only has one player (Morris) with more than 8 goals on the season.
With such strong shooters on both teams, Friday’s matchup could very well be a shootout: Stanford and Akron are two of the top three highest-scoring teams in the Big Dance, with the Zips having scored 3.67 goals per game in the tournament and the Cardinal coming in at third at 2.67. On the season as a whole, Akron averages a smaller yet still significant 2.43 goals per game.
In addition, Akron comes into the matchup having played against some of the best teams of the nation, specifically nine of the current top-25 teams in NCAA soccer. The Zips have a 7-2-1 record against them. Three of those teams — Rutgers, SMU and Creighton — were opponents that Akron faced in the first few rounds of the tournament, and the Zips won the three games by a combined score of 11-4.
Stanford and Akron also share several of the same opponents from this season: While Stanford beat Ohio State and Wake Forest, the Zips tied and lost to those teams, respectively. The Cardinal were upset by UC Santa Barbara, a team Akron beat in September, in their season opener, while both teams beat Santa Clara and SMU. While Stanford defeated and then tied UCLA in their pair of meetings, Akron lost to the Bruins 4-2.
While Stanford will have its hands full with a potent Zip attack, the Cardinal, thanks to their disciplined backline, do post one of the best goals against average in the nation (.69), while Akron, on the other hand, has a 1.22 goals against average, something that the Cardinal could take advantage of.
Regardless of how the teams look on paper, the team knows that now, especially after taking down the one-seed, that anything, including its own exit in the tournament, is possible.
“We very much have a ‘next game up’ mentality,” Gunn said. “When the season is all done and dusted, that’s when you reflect. Right now, we’re still going and have another exciting game to play. That’s all we’re thinking about right now.”
The Cardinal will appear in their first final four game since 2002 against Akron on Friday, Dec. 11 at 5:30 p.m. PT.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.