Aug. 18, 2009
STANFORD, Calif. - There is a danger in having a season as successful as the Stanford women's soccer team had in 2008. Expectations grow.
Stanford set single-season records in victories and goals scored, and ventured as deep into the NCAA Tournament as it ever has, reaching the College Cup semifinals.
But what emerged from such success was not necessarily satisfaction, but increased anticipation. The Cardinal believes it can do better. And why not?
Stanford returns nine of 11 starters and 17 letterwinners from a 22-2-1 team.
The Cardinal returns 69 of last year's 71 goals.
The 10-player freshman class includes the national high school player of the year and some of the most sought-after recruits in the nation.
Stanford is the Pac-10 favorite and ranked No. 2 in the nation, according to preseason coaches' polls.
"That was the beautiful thing about that team," said coach Paul Ratcliffe of the evolution of his 2008 squad. "They still were trying to prove something. We honestly felt we were still trying to get to our peak. I don't think we got there. Another month and we would have been even better. That's what I hope for this season."
Said senior forward Kelley O'Hara, "Every year, our end goal is the national championship, and this year is no different."
That goal is within reach. The front line of O'Hara, Christen Press and Lindsay Taylor combined for 45 goals and 26 assists last year. Their combined 116 points was unmatched by any trio in the country. Each ranked among the nation's top 50 scorers, another feat no other school could claim. And all are back.
Add an offensive force on the back line in New Zealand national teamer Ali Riley, the team's fastest player and a onetime All-Pac-10 forward, and freshman Courtney Verloo, the third-leading scorer in the 2008 FIFA Under-17 World Cup, and Stanford has more scoring threats than defenses may be able to account for.
It's easy to assume the newcomers will blend seamlessly with the veterans and mold into a cohesive unit. After all, that's the way it worked last year. Noyola and Taylor were first-team All-Americans - the only freshmen selected - and were joined by Levin on Soccer America's All-Freshman team.
It could very well happen again. But each individual must find common ground, and this year's team must do so while replacing its two rocks in the central defense, Marisa Abegg and Allison Falk, each of whom moved on to Women's Professional Soccer.
The solution may not be simple. Both Abegg and Falk were physically dominant, outstanding leaders and will be difficult to replace. Instead, Ratcliffe may play a different style of defense, with backliners who may not be as dominant in the air, but skillful at playing the ball with their feet and building the attack.
Ratcliffe cannot even be sure of Stanford's formation until he makes judgments on the freshmen and their roles. Those decisions could have a far-reaching scope because they will also affect the veterans. Ali Riley, for instance, could return to forward, and several others will be tested at a variety of positions.
Yes, the Cardinal has much in its favor, but that doesn't mean it enters the season as a polished product.
"Last year, we played a 4-3-3," Ratcliffe said. "This year, I'm not sure. We'll take a look at the freshmen and see what system fits this group."
Here is how the team breaks down, position by position:
Kira Maker, a junior, already has 35 starts, 16 shutouts and a career goals-against average of 0.47. Those figures put her on pace for one of the finest careers in school history. Last season, Maker posted a 0.33 GAA, the second-best ever at Stanford.
The losses of Abegg and Falk to graduation leave a gap in experience in the central defense. Each was a co-captain who started in every match over their collegiate careers.
Ratcliffe will look at different combinations to fill those spots: including the possibility of moving midfielder Allison McCann, or outside defenders Ali Riley and Alicia Jenkins. Freshmen Alina Garciamendez, Madeleine Thompson and Nina Watkins will be given looks along with Katie Riley, out for the past two years with injuries, and Kristy Zurmuhlen, a reserve midfielder last season.
The outside back tandem of Ali Riley and Jenkins should remain unchanged unless either is asked to move to another position. Riley, described by Ratcliffe as "one of the best outside backs in the country," could even wind up on the wing depending on how freshmen Verloo and Rachel Quon, teammates on the U.S. Under-17 World Cup team, perform.
The defense has traditionally been a stronghold for the program. In each of the past eight years, Stanford has held opponents to an average of under a goal per game.
Once the back four is organized, Ratcliffe will work toward cementing the midfield and forward lines.
Noyola (six goals, 10 assists), an attacking midfielder, is a player who simply makes her teammates better and leads a group that has strong depth at the position. Levin stepped into the central midfield role last season to start every match. And Kristin Stannard, Hillary Heath and McCann combined for 32 starts last season.
In addition, Shira Averbuch and Katie Finley seem poised for breakthrough seasons. Junior Morgan Redman, with seven goals and six assists mostly as a reserve, is a constant scoring threat. Kristy Zurmuhlen has excelled in a defensive midfield role, and freshmen Mariah Nogueira, Nina Watkins, and Quon could step in and contribute immediately.
Stanford can break a defense down in many ways through many individuals. Such is the depth of the Cardinal attack that O'Hara, Stanford's leading scorer in 2006 and '07, set a career-high with 13 goals last season and still was surpassed by Taylor and Press, who each scored 16.
"In the past, we've had one or two scoring threats," Ratcliffe said. "Now, we have four or five."
There's also Verloo, who has excelled for the U.S. in youth international play and captained the U.S. team at the U-17 World Cup last winter. Finley, a redshirt freshman, is a skillful offensive player who is looking for her opportunity, and fifth-year senior Hillary Heath and freshman Marjani Hing-Glover bring a physical presence into the attack.
For the 2009 Stanford Cardinal, the talent is in place, the objectives are set, and the team is confident. The season awaits.