STANFORD — Fresh off an exciting summer of World Cup soccer, the Stanford men’s soccer team convened its first official practice of the season Wednesday.
The World Cup experience was an especially exciting one for Stanford, as the U.S. Men’s National Team trained on campus for two weeks leading up to its departure for Brazil.
Stanford third-year head coach Jeremy Gunn is a lifelong soccer aficionado, who grew up in Leeds, England watching now-Argentina head coach Alex Sabella play for his hometown team, Leeds United. And Gunn’s boyish excitement about Stanford hosting the U.S. team, and about the entire World Cup season, was sincere and palpable.
“I think everybody gets inspired by the World Cup,” Gunn said. “It’s so exciting as a fan, but it’s intriguing as a coach because you get to see what all the best in the world are doing on the biggest stage in the world. … We had a massive added interest this year because we watched [the U.S.] go through their pre-tournament camp. We got to see them preparing. We’re all fans of the U.S. anyway. We’re even bigger vested interests when you’ve been watching them first hand.”
The air surrounding the Stanford men’s team is chock with excitement as well. In two previous seasons at the helm, Gunn has quickly brought the program back to prominence as a contender for a national championship. After the Cardinal finished with losing records in two consecutive seasons prior to Gunn taking over, the former Cal State Bakersfield standout turned the program around in a hurry. In 2012, Stanford finished with a 9-8-1 record then improved last season with a 10-7-4 mark and a postseason march into the third round of the NCAA Division I Tournament.
Considering Gunn’s resume though, the winning ways should come as no surprise. After moving to the U.S. at age 18 to play on scholarship at Bakersfield, he returned to the school as an assistant coach under Simon Tobin, and captured a Division II national championship in 1997.
Gunn took his first head coaching position at Colorado’s Fort Lewis College and in 2005 and celebrated another Division II championship in the midst of an undefeated season. In 2007, he took his first Division I post at the University of Charlotte, reaching the NCAA Tournament title game in his final year of 2011, only to fall 1-0 to national champion North Carolina.
“I’ve had quite a fortunate career — winning championships at two of the places, and then losing in the final at the third place,” Gunn said. “So, the plan here would be to keep moving forward with those things.”
Poised to once again contribute to the Cardinal’s goal of moving forward is defenseman Matt Taylor. Taylor, a fifth-year senior, is one of the most tenured veterans on the team. And along with true freshman Danya Kafai, Taylor is one of two Redwood City natives on the roster.
Taylor has taken quite the circuitous route to arrive on the Stanford soccer pitch after sustaining a serious injury his senior year of high school at Bellarmine. Following Taylor’s epic junior season of 2009, in which he was named West Catholic Athletic League Defensive Player of the Year as the Bells won their second consecutive Central Coast Section crown, the marquee defenseman suffered a broken leg against Serra at the midway point of the season.
The injury cost Taylor his true freshman season. Then after re-breaking the leg toward the end of his freshman year, he was slowed through the 2011 and ’12 seasons before finally emerging a starting defenseman last season. After starting his redshirt junior season on the bench, Taylor earned his first start in September of last year and has been in the lineup without fail ever since.
“He’s worked his way forward,” Gunn said. “Last year, he had a tremendous season. He worked extremely hard to keep improving. He really became a very reliable central defender who was just absolutely fearless.”
Taylor’s breakout season culminated in a heroic game-winning goal in Stanford’s final win of the year during the NCAA Tournament. It was a profound accomplishment after wondering along his path to recovery if he would ever play again.
“That’s always in your head, but you have to imagine (heroic) stuff like that to push you to keep going,” Taylor said. “That stuff really helped me, knowing what I could do and what I can do.”
After winning their postseason opener, the Cardinal traveled to Cal State Northridge, where Taylor’s imaginings became reality. Stanford won a thrilling 1-0 match against the Big West champs. And it was Taylor who notched the decisive score.
Northridge midfielder Yarden Azulay had been giving Stanford fits throughout the first half. The Cardinal shored up on defense, but got a chance late in the half with a free kick from Aaron Kovar. The midfielder’s kick sailed over the intended target, J.J. Kaval. But Taylor was trailing the play and left his feet to get full extension on a diving header to score the goal.
The victory would stand as the Cardinal’s final win of the year as they were summarily defeated 1-0 by the University of Washington on a heartbreaking goal in the 85th minute in the Field of 16 matchup.
“It was a very exciting knockout game of soccer,” Gunn said. “It was very close. There weren’t too many chances in the game. We created some chances and just couldn’t quite capitalize; and they managed to score a goal off a throw-in that won it for them.”
Entering into this season, Stanford is ranked No. 20 in the nation. By the numbers, that makes for an uphill climb for the Cardinal with three Pac-12 team ranked ahead of them. No. 4 ranked UCLA, No. 6 Washington and No. 7 Cal are all looking to improve on spectacular years as well.
“The closer you get to the top, the steeper the ascent,” Gunn said. “So, it will be very tough to improve on last year’s final position. But it’s something that we’re capable of doing, and so it’s something we’re going to try to achieve. We want to be able to win the Pac-12, we want to be able to get into the national tournament, and we want to play as many games as we can once we’re in the tournament.”
Stanford’s season kicks off Aug. 29 at Nebraska’s Creighton University.