The best offense in Division I women's soccer is in Palo Alto, California, where No. 2 Stanford (8-1-0) is on pace for one of the best goals-per-game average in DI women’s soccer history and the best scoring rate in 13 seasons. A difficult early season loss on the road, a platoon at the goalkeeper position that helps to spark their potent offense and a talented freshman class are some of the ingredients that have the Cardinal poised for a deep postseason run and, potentially, a spot in the record books.
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Since 2004, only Prairie View and Mississippi Valley State have scored more goals per game (6.15 and 5.06, respectively) than Stanford, which is averaging a nation-best 4.56 goals per match through its first nine. Neither school played as many games or as competitive of a schedule as the Cardinal, who already have played three opponents currently ranked in the Top 25, with No. 1 UCLA, No. 7 USC, No. 11 California and No. 24 Utah still on its remaining schedule.
Stanford’s season began in Milwaukee, where a pair of shutout wins against Marquette and Wisconsin reaffirmed the team’s No. 2 preseason ranking in the United Soccer Coaches poll. At the end of the 10-day road trip, Stanford flew south to Gainesville, Florida as the No. 1 team in the country to face the No. 8-ranked Gators.
“That’s always a big rivalry game for us, especially for the newcomers,” said Alana Cook, a team captain and starting center back. “That was their first time seeing something like that in college soccer.”
An early season shocker
It was a historic night on Florida’s campus as the Gators beat No. 1 Stanford in soccer and No. 1 Texas in volleyball.
Stanford took the lead against Florida twice, 1-0 in the 25’ and 2-1 in the 59’, but after each goal, the Gators tied the score.
"I think a few times in that game there were periods where it could’ve taken one finish or one goal to put Florida away and we just didn’t put it away in that sense," said Kyra Carusa, a redshirt junior forward. "Then when Florida would pick up momentum, instead of shutting that momentum down, we kind of let it go just a little too much."
Less than three minutes after Florida’s second equalizer, Lais Araujo scored the game-winner in the 82nd minute, giving the Gators their first win against the Cardinal in program history.
“Adversity can definitely help you early in the season and that was definitely a time of adversity for us because we like to win and compete so that was hard to concede three goals,” Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. “It’s rare we concede three goals so that was a challenging game for us to bounce back from.”
After allowing three goals against Florida, Stanford has surrendered just two goals in its last six games.
“I think it just gave us a new fire, a little more motivation coming back out,” Cook said, reflecting on the loss to Florida, “and as you saw when we got back here, I think we put some goals in the back of the net.”
The Cardinal had a week off between their loss to the Gators and the beginning of a four-game homestand, and that's when the floodgates opened. Stanford outscored its opponents 26-0 during the four-game stretch, giving the Cardinal six clean sheets on the season, fourth best in the country.
“I think it’s scoring early and scoring often," said Carusa, the team's second-leading scorer. "Something one of our assistant coaches Vijay [Dias] said is 'Be ruthless.' He just looks at us and goes 'Be frickin’ ruthless when you get on the field,' and one goal in the first five minutes is great but it’s not good enough. We want to be up seven goals at halftime and it’s like any team that goes down seven goals is going to be pretty demoralized."
The team concluded the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 2-1 road victory at Santa Clara, which was responsible for Stanford’s early exit as a No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA tournament.
|Stanford's 2017 schedule (through Sept. 27)|
|San Francisco||W, 8-0|
|Santa Clara||W, 2-1|
|Washington State||W, 2-1|
The phrase “lock in” has been a mantra of sorts for the Cardinal. The painful memories of the Florida loss — and, for the returning players from last season, Santa Clara — serve as a reminder for what could happen if Stanford loses its mental edge.
“I think the big thing with Stanford is we like to play smart – that’s what we get made fun of for,” Cook said. “One of things we always say is ‘Lock in,’ so it just means being focused at all times, being smart reading the play. This year we’ve been focusing on being as aggressive as we can as backs so not just playing a smart game but also playing more aggressive and a little nasty as we defend, a little bit of everything.”
Ratcliffe added: “We have a talented squad and now it’s just a matter of our determination and focus for us to have a strong year, so I think that’s a key going forward.”
Stanford is playing its usual 4-3-3 formation. The most important part of a team's formation, Ratcliffe said, is finding the best spots for key players at the start of a new season. The Cardinal play what its coach describes as a possession style of play, especially in the back of its formation, then attacking with speed when its front lines have a numerical advantage.
That's how freshman forward Catarina Macario has eight goals (T-11th in the country) and Carusa has netted seven (T-25th).
|Most Goals Per Game in Division I Women's Soccer History|
|Stanford (through Sept. 27)||2017||9||41||4.56|
Stanford has perhaps the strongest offensive arsenal that Ratcliffe has had in his 15 seasons in Palo Alto.
"I think we have the most collective weapons that I’ve had," he said. "The scoring’s pretty balanced, we’re getting it from a lot of different players, so that’s great, but ultimately I think we have a lot of strong players. We’re getting goals from midfield, our outside backs are potent at getting forward and creating goals and then our forwards are obviously scoring goals and a few of them are freshmen that have come in and made big impact as well so it’s really a good feeling right now for the team.”
Fourteen players have scored this season and 17 have recorded a point, led by Macario with 21.
Ratcliffe said he had lofty expectations for Macario in her freshman campaign because of her talent level but she has even exceeded his expectations. He believes she can do even more for the Cardinal's attack.
"Now that I’ve worked with her," he said, "I think she can score even more goals because she’s that talented.”
Macario isn't satisfied with her output either. Eight goals through the first month-plus of the season is "not bad," she said, but she has her sights set on a national championship.
The ultimate goal
While it may seem counterintuitive to the casual soccer fan, Stanford's high-powered attack often begins with its goalkeepers. The Cardinal rotate between Allison Jahansouz and Lauren Rood, each of whom has three shutouts this seson, and Stanford uses them as a third center back at times, emphasizing possession of the ball and initiating offense.
"When you play back to the goalkeeper, that adds an extra number for the opponent to defend," Ratcliffe said, "and then we've got to find the right player after that and build up the attack, so that’s kind of the foundation of how we start attacks when we can.”
Stanford's depth and chemistry — the Cardinal have 36 assists on 41 goals — was developed in practice and off the field.
"It’s always, always competitive. We ourselves are our biggest competition and so when we train at practice it’s always hyper-competitive," Carusa said. "You want to score the most goals, you want to be the best one out there, you want to put the ball in the back of the net and I think that totally translated into our preseason games and how we’re playing with our offense this year.”
The team stays clsoe off the field, too, bonding over games like Bananagrams and "Mafia." The players recently kept things loose with a water balloon fight.
After winning its Pac-12 opener on the road at Washington State last Thursday, the Cardinal have a week off before hosting Arizona on Thursday and Arizona State on Sunday. Ratcliffe said Stanford's goals every fall are to win a Pac-12 championship and the national championship. This season is no different.
"In order to get the best opportunity to win a national championship you want to be a top seed," Ratcliffe said, "so in order to get that, you have to win the majority of your games.”
Stanford has done that with its 8-1 start, thanks to one of the best scoring attacks women's soccer has seen in years.