On Wednesday night in Palo Alto, California, Aaron Kovar reminded everyone watching why he was the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2012.
The Stanford Cardinal needed a goal in overtime to keep any hopes of a postseason berth alive, as they played the No. 4 ranked Cal Bears to a 1-1 score through 90 minutes. Kovar, a Sounders FC Academy product and Garfield High School alum, took matters into his own hands.
The sophomore left winger maneuvered around one defender to get into the box, then cut around another to the middle of the box, juking him a second time before ripping a right-footed shot past the goalkeeper for the game-winning – and potentially season-saving – goal just 74 seconds into the golden-goal overtime period.
It’s no coincidence that Kovar also played a part in Stanford’s first goal, and in a locker room filled with a wide array of MLS allegiances, he played the ball to another Sounders FC Academy alum in Jordan Morris, who carried it into the box before finding Zach Bateer for the first-half goal.
The Cardinal soccer team has players from the Academy programs of the Portland Timbers, Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes, but on Wednesday night, the boys from Seattle shined brightest.
“It’s nice to have another Seattle guy around and we can watch the first team games,” Kovar said of MLS weekends, adding with a laugh, “We don’t shut up about Seattle.”
The Sounders FC Academy alums have been integral in the success of Stanford’s 9-6-3 season and the freshman Morris has had a great mentor in Kovar. It didn’t hurt matters that Kovar would be setting up the Morris for goals, as well.
“We’ve been through the same kind of stuff and he’s someone I can talk to if I have any questions. We’ve formed a pretty good partnership and it’s just going to continue to get better as we continue to play with each other,” Morris said. “I’ve never had anyone that puts in crosses as good as he does, so I’ve been working on my movement in the box and getting on the end of crosses.”
Morris himself was the 2013 USSDA National Player of the Year after notching 28 goals in 32 matches for the Sounders FC U-18s. The Mercer Island High School product opted to join Kovar in Palo Alto. The kindred spirits have nurtured that relationship at the college level, as Morris has six goals and seven assists to lead the Cardinal in production while Kovar has two goals and five assists after his stellar output on Wednesday.
Morris, a natural goal-scorer and hard-working striker, spent the first part of the year as a set-up man, tallying three assists before notching his first goal. That score came in the seventh game of the season against eighth-ranked UC-Santa Barbara on an assist from Kovar and later he added his second goal, the game-winner in a pivotal 2-1 win for Stanford.
“At first there was a bit of a transition – it’s very direct and it’s a physical game and it took me a bit to get used to that, but in the past few games I’ve been adjusting better,” Morris said.
Added Kovar, “He’s an awesome fit. He’s really humble and a hard worker. Anyone who’s seen our games can see how well he’s playing. I just try and serve the ball to him and he can take care of the rest.”
Morris later added a game-winning goal against Oregon State and had one goal and two assists in a 3-3 draw with San Diego State.
While Kovar has been helping him in one aspect, Stanford Head Coach Jeremy Gunn has been teaching him the ins and outs of play as a striker. Himself a forward at the college and pro level, Gunn has been instrumental in helping Morris with the adjustment to the college level.
“The defenders are better at this level, so it’s harder to get in behind them. I’ve learned a lot under Coach Gunn – he’s taught me how to have that striker’s mentality in the box,” Morris said. “That’s one of the main things I’ve improved on.”
Meanwhile, Kovar is thriving in his second season and his heroics against California may have been just enough to catapult Stanford into its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2009 and only the second since 2002.
Currently ranked 41st in the country, the win could do wonders for Stanford’s postseason hopes, as 48 teams make the NCAA Tournament. All six of Stanford’s losses this season have come against top-seven teams in the country, so the signature win over Cal will certainly give them a boost in the rankings.
“It’s gone really well. I’ve been healthy, fit, strong and felt really good,” Kovar said. “The goal at the beginning of the year was to make the national tournament and we still have that opportunity [...] We want to make a statement. It’s funny that it comes down to Cal.”
As alums of its Academy, Sounders FC has the right of first refusal on Kovar and Morris if they do elect to sign with Major League Soccer. When the pair looks around the locker room and sees so many other faces watching their own teams, the camaraderie builds a stronger desire to represent the school at the pro level and to put on the jersey of their respective MLS clubs.
“It’s fun to see all these Academy guys rooting for their teams. I’m sure that’s becoming more and more popular in college soccer. The top players are often coming from the MLS Academies because they are so well run – especially in Seattle,” Kovar said. “The possibility that people might end up playing for the first team is pretty exciting.”
The NCAA Tournament field will be announced on Monday, with the University of Washington, California and UCLA all expected to get bids out of the Pac-12 Conference.