So there’s a team on campus that lost its offensive leader, one of its most valuable playmakers, and a couple of solid senior defenders. Now it’s having trouble scoring on the road, as other teams load up their defenses to put pressure on our offense to take long shots over the top rather than a more methodical short passing game.
I’m of course talking about the women’s soccer team.
Tonight they face off, #1 vs #2, Stanford vs UCLA in Los Angeles at 6:00 pm on the Pac-12 network. Give it a watch, but if you were basing your expectations off of last season’s team, be prepared to be frustrated.
The Cardinal hasn’t been able to replace Lindsay Taylor up front, Kirsty Zurmuhlen in the defensive midfield and Cami Levin on the back line, but most especially they have no one to take the place of attacking central midfielder and playmaker Teresa Noyola.
Those issues have to a certain extent been disguised by the excellent play of the senior defenders, Alina Garciamendez and Rachel Quon, keeper Emily Oliver and most especially by defensive central midfielder Mariah “Clutch” Nogueira. But there is little connection through the midfield to the front line; while Nina Watkins has taken on some of the defensive duties of Zurmuhlen, she doesn’t seem to be able to convert tackles into balls going forward as well as Kirsty did.
At attacking center mid, Alex Doll seems a bit lost, and Stanford has had a couple of knocks to other players. Up front, Chioma Ubogagu, back from playing with the U-20 national team, and Courtney Verloo form a potent outside combination on the left and right, but I think Lo LaBonta is playing a bit out of position at center forward; she would be much more natural at a “withdrawn striker” or as an attacking center mid.
There have been some great moments this year, but almost all of them have come through Nogueira, Garciamendez or Quon. Late in tight games, if Stanford needs to score, they end up moving forward into the attack. They do it well, but that also leaves Stanford open to the counter, especially as the mids tend to not cycle back and cover as the defenders go forward.
Watch tonight’s game. Stanford’s offense seems to consist of playing the ball among the back five, reversing it until one of the outside backs, Quon or Laura Leidle, can move forward. Then the ball bypasses the midfield entirely, looking for either Verloo or Ubogagu out wide or LaBonta (who while marvelously skilled with her feet is neither very big nor very fast in the central forward role). Which leads in general to either Chi or Courtney trying to beat a double-team, or LaBonta launching a 35-yard shot in the vicinity of the goal.
That’s where Stanford misses Taylor; accuracy and finishing. As a team, Stanford is still in general outshooting its opponents by wide margins; the shots just are nowhere near the net.
In Friday’s game against what should have been an over-matched USC, Stanford had 8 shots in the first half, 1 of which was on frame. Early in the second half, Stanford again was firing blanks high and wide. Until late in the game, when Nogueira and Quon pushed up in the attack, and Stanford’s chances got more dangerous.
But that push up also changed the shape of Stanford’s defense, and SC had several good chances late in the game to score. Most especially off a series of corner kicks, one of which ended up in the back of the net but was waved off for either a foul or offsides, it was difficult to tell.
How was the game rescued? By Quon, who lofted a free kick from the half line onto the head of Nogueira at the top of the box. Mariah flicked it on – directly into the path of an onrushing Garciamendez, who toe-poked the ball into the left-side netting, ending a 100+ minute nightmare in about 4 seconds of playing time.
Now, you can say what you want about the field – they played the game in the Coliseum, which meant the field was short and narrow, allowing SC to pack the defense and not allowing Stanford to spread the ball around.
But beyond that, the lack of threat and pressure in the midfield is allowing bad teams to stay with Stanford, and good teams to threaten all of Stanford’s streaks. Tonight, we’ll see how they fare against a very good team in the Bruins.
Because Stanford’s had it relatively easy thus far – most of their difficult games have been at home, the one exception being the early and great victory at Penn State. Which was followed with a 1-0 loss.
It comes down to road scoring. At home, Stanford has 32 goals in 10 games; away or neutral, 15 goals in 7 games. And that is skewed by two 4 goal wins against weak opponents in UNC Greensboro and Arizona. 1-0 in 2 OTs at a mediocre SC. 2-1 and 1-0 against middle of the road Utah and Colorado.
What does it mean? I’m not sure, but I’ll be watching tonight, because, despite star-studded recruiting classes, when Nogueira, Quon and Garciamendez graduate, I’m not sure where the team is going without them. Nogueira is the leading goal-scorer despite being a defensive midfielder, and Garciamendez is tied for second despite being a central defender. Be sure to watch the corners and other set pieces, as that’s where we’re likely to score.