To fans who don’t follow college soccer, the Stanford men’s soccer team might seem like Sounders FC uber-prospect and junior forward Jordan Morris surrounded by an indeterminate supporting cast. As the first men’s college soccer player to be called up to the U.S. National Team since 1999, Morris brings an undeniable cachet to Stanford’s lineup the rest of the college soccer world simply can’t match.
But the Cardinal are a legitimate NCAA title contender precisely because they’re so much more than simply Morris & Company.
After winning its second consecutive Pac-12 title with Morris away on national team duty, No. 8 seed Stanford thrashed a quality Santa Clara team 3-1 in its NCAA tournament opener last weekend to advance to the Sweet 16 against No. 9 Ohio State. The Buckeyes are exceedingly direct and don’t tend to value possession, so Stanford will have every opportunity to utilize its skilled midfield to control tempo when the two teams collide on Sunday in Stanford, Calif.
The Cardinal were gifted no favors by the NCAA selection committee. If they beat Ohio State, they’ll likely have to go through top overall seed Wake Forest just to qualify for the College Cup at Sporting Kansas City’s Sporting Park early next month, soccer’s answer to the Final Four. The ultra-deep Demon Deacons, who possess the top freshman in the country in Englishman Jack Harrison, have bottom-seeded Indiana in the other half of the region.
There’s little question Stanford tends to go as Morris does, but not always. Morris didn’t find the back of the net against Santa Clara, and the Cardinal deferred its scoring largely to Amir Bashti, a freshman attacking midfielder from the San Jose Earthquakes system who’s established himself as a top U.S. Youth National Team prospect. Bashti scored twice against Santa Clara - Morris assisted on the late insurance goal - while top left back prospect Brandon Vincent bagged the other.
Bashti and Vincent are representative of the kind of star quality Stanford possesses outside just Morris. Vincent is a senior, and if MLS clubs are paying attention he should come off the board in the top 20, if not the top 10, of the MLS SuperDraft in January. Bashti, meanwhile, might be a more enticing prospect in the Bay Area than Tommy Thompson, who San Jose rewarded with the priciest initial Homegrown Player contract in MLS history in 2014. Bashti should follow his lead in the next year or two.
Of course, Morris tends to stir the drink where national coverage is concerned, and to be fair to the former Sounders Academy striker, he does lead the team in goals with eight, despite missing major minutes this season while away with the USMNT and the U.S U-23s. And the fact that he’s put 51 percent of his team-leading 47 shots on target shows he’s as discerning with his chances as he is ready to offload them.
Stanford’s shown over the past two years especially that it can win when Morris either is not in the team or is dealing with rolling coverage blotting out his movement. Even still, Morris manages to earn his chances every game by virtue of his otherworldly combination of speed and poaching ability. There are so few defenders that know how to handle him in college soccer that he simply tends to glide past most of them.
The Sounders, of course, are hot on his heels, reportedly offering him a contract that would supplant Thompson’s as the richest in Homegrown history. And while the hands-off approach is still the rule of law while Morris is making up his mind while at Stanford - “Jordan will come out when he wants to come out, and he’ll go where he wants to go," Sounders GM Garth Lagerwwey said last week - Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid passed over Seattle University's second round game at home against his alma mater, UCLA, to travel to the Bay Area and watch Morris and Stanford beat Santa Clara.
It's been reported that Morris is still weighing whether or not he'll return for his senior year in 2016, but whether or not Morris signs this offseason, the Sounders have certainly done their due diligence in courting him.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned Seattle U kept its magical 17-win season alive with a 1-0 win over an unseeded UCLA team that might’ve seemed a bit more unlikely than the teams’ respective records would lead you to believe.
UCLA came within an eyelash of winning the national championship last year, when they outclassed Virginia through a regulation and two overtimes of scoreless soccer before going down on penalty kicks. After losing Hermann Trophy winner Leo Stolz to the New York Red Bulls in the draft, UCLA struggled to find consistency in 2015, even as Sounders academy prospect Seyi Adekoya returned from a devastating leg injury to lead the team with 12 goals as a sophomore.
Even with all that, many favored UCLA to win. That clearly didn’t sit well with the No. 11 seed Redhawks, who boast a tremendously productive Sounders Academy product of their own in sophomore and San Diego State transfer David Olsen. His total of 15 goals this year is among the national leaders, and yet it was Shoreline native and senior forward Hamza Haddadi who poked home the decisive goal to down the Bruins 1-0 last weekend and send them into the Sweet 16.
Two other Sounders FC Academy alums chipped in on Sunday too. Junior defenders Kyle Bjornethun and Sam Langston both helped keep the Buins off the board and preserve the team's eighth shutout of the season.
Everything now is golden for the Redhawks, who will be firm road underdogs in every match from here until the end of their tournament. They make a cross-country trip to ACC tournament champion Syracuse later this week - their nearly 2,800-mile trip is the longest of any road team in the Sweet 16 - and that will test their ability to come up with goals in adverse conditions. Syracuse has become known for its defensive verve over the past few years, and Seattle U will need to conjure a goal from somewhere on Sunday.
The Redhawks may not be favored, and if they win they’d likely have another cross-country trip ahead to face No. 3 seed Georgetown, one of the tourney favorites with top overall draft prospect Josh Yaro in the center of defense.
But with Olsen, Haddadi and the rest humming at top speed, never count them out.