Sunday’s NCAA men’s soccer final is a stage that Stanford is unfamiliar with.
After all, the farthest in the tournament that any player on the current roster has gone has been the Third Round, and the program hasn’t even appeared in the title game since 2002.
For some teams, such a prospect would be daunting. But for Stanford, it’s everything except that.
This moment has been years in the making for the Cardinal, with the team’s centerpiece being a mindset defined by discipline and demanding that players give their all.
It’s what won Stanford back to back Pac-12 titles. It’s what allowed Stanford to cruise to two wins against Santa Clara and Ohio State in the Second and Third Rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament. It’s what helped the Cardinal emerge as victors in double overtime against top-seeded Wake Forest in the quarterfinals and in penalty kicks against fourth-seeded Akron in the semifinals, and it’s what very well could earn the Cardinal their first national title when they play second-seeded Clemson in the national championship Sunday at 11 a.m.
Stanford and Clemson earned spots in the final after both of their semifinal games ended in scoreless regulation periods and went to penalty kicks. Clemson advanced after a 4-1 shootout, while Stanford’s went into 10 rounds and saw several lead changes, eventually coming out with a 8-7 advantage.
Stanford has not lost when forced to play extra soccer this season, having notched three wins and three ties, including Friday’s penalty kick shootout. It’s a feat not only impressive in and of itself but even more significant when considering the talented teams — such as SMU, Wake Forest, and Akron — the Cardinal have faced in overtime.
And the Cardinal have never seemed tired during those extra 20 minutes.
“I think a lot of that is mentality,” said Sam Werner. “[Head coach Jeremy] Gunn talks about it a lot. When you’re feeling like you’re running on empty there’s still a lot more to push for and our guys show that on the field every time. We go to OT; we seem to have more energy and a little bit more life and that’s proved to be really successful in those late games.”
“We love those moments: overtime, double overtime,” added Brian Nana-Sinkham. “The one thing you hear coming off the field in regulation is, ‘We love this; this is our time; we’ve been here before.’”
“It is draining, but everyone had that in them still. They had that in their tank.”
But it’s not only the intangibles that drive the team: The Cardinal’s back line and keeper in Andrew Epstein comprise no doubt one of the best defensive units, if not the best, in the country: It has only given up 0.65 goals per game this season and only three goals in its four games of the tournament.
“The biggest thing is trust,” Nana-Sinkham said. “I trust these guys next to me with my life. We’re just so in sync. We know what each other are going to do. And with that kind of trust you can’t really give up goals if you’re working hard.”
While their attack has been led most prominently by junior Jordan Morris, seven players have scored at least two goals and several others stepped up on Friday to make penalty kicks when the team’s season was on the line.
Stanford had several close calls against Akron, including a point-blank shot from Foster Langsdorf, which did not find the back of the net thanks to an incredible performance from Akron keeper Jake Fenlason. The team will look to convert against a similarly impressive keeper in Clemson’s Andrew Tarbell, who had a stellar match against Syracuse in the semifinal, during which he notched 8 saves.
While aiming to exploit Clemson’s weaknesses and play to its strengths, the Cardinal still maintain the mindset that they can only control the way they play, and nothing else.
“We’re worried about our game,” Nana-Sinkham said. “Clemson, we know they’re a good team. Some big guys up top, good keeper, but we’re confident going into tomorrow.”
“We’ve done this before, two games on the weekend we’ve done this all year,” he added about the physical and mental difficulties in playing games so close together. “We’re not worried about being tired, worn down anything like that. We’re just going in with everything we have.”
The team will indeed give everything it has at Sporting Park in its quest for the title — with the hope of winning the program’s first NCAA championship and capping off a remarkable season that not only reflects the progress of the program, but also in the way that every team wants to: going out on top.
“You try to set goals that you want to have and this group was flat out, let’s play as many games as we can together,” Gunn said. “We’ve done that and now we are in the final and want to get greedy and win it.”
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.