Cardinal Connection: Women's Soccer
Traditional fall sport seasons are looking a little different these days. The Cardinal Connection series provides a unique perspective in how teams are communicating, navigating challenges, embracing opportunities and staying engaged -- all while remaining focused on their championship goals. This edition offers an inside look at the women's soccer program.
IN THIS STRANGEST of seasons, the Stanford women's soccer team still is six weeks away from full-scale training while in other parts of the country teams have finished their regular seasons and conference tournaments.
Assuming that Stanford's season will begin Feb. 3 and the NCAA will hold a mid-May College Cup, as planned, the Cardinal will have some catching up to do. Half the squad are on campus and taking part in limited workouts, and the entire team should report after Christmas and begin full training the first week of January after a quarantine period.
The last time we saw Stanford, the Cardinal was lifting the NCAA championship trophy on Dec. 8 at San Jose's Avaya Stadium after a tense 5-4 penalty-kick victory over North Carolina after the teams played to a scoreless draw through two overtime periods. When Stanford begins play this season, it will do so with three stars sewn above the numbers on the backs of each uniform, signifying the program's third national championship.
There are much more important concerns than soccer, but for the Cardinal, this is the wrong year for a pandemic. This team has the potential to be among greatest collegiate sides of all time.
"The team we had last season was phenomenal," said Paul Ratcliffe, the Knowles Family Director of Women's Soccer. "This team has the appetite to defend that championship and win another. It was disappointing we weren't able to play in the fall, but people are preparing and working hard, and anticipating the season ahead."
Whether circumstances allow Stanford to reach its potential this season is unknown, but look what the Cardinal returns from a 24-1 team that won its second NCAA title in three years and fifth consecutive Pac-12 crown:
• Two-time Hermann Trophy winner Catarina Macario, who has a chance to be the first three-time winner in history.
• Four 2019 All-Americans: Macario, first-team defender Naomi Girma, second-team forward Madison Haley, and third-team defender Kiki Pickett.
• Eight starters from 2019 and 10 players who started at least 12 matches.
• Fifty-eight percent of its scoring, with scorers of 60 of their team-record 102 goals.
• Goalkeeper Katie Meyer, who saved two penalty kicks in the NCAA final and made a momentum-changing PK save in the semifinal against UCLA.
Stanford celebrates with Kiki Pickett (sliding in middle), who struck the penalty kick that won the NCAA final. Photo by Al Chang.
THIS SEASON IS unlike any other if only based on the different approaches of Power Five conferences. The Atlantic Coast, Big 12, and Southeastern began in mid-September. Florida State won the ACC tournament on Nov. 15, and the SEC final is Nov. 22. TCU won the Big 12 regular-season title, but there was no tournament. The Big Ten has not begun.
Presumably, teams that completed regular seasons will stay sharp with nonconference matches until the 48-team NCAA field is determined April 18. The College Cup is scheduled for May 13-17. All of dates are unofficial.
Will a four-month headstart be an advantage for other schools? Or, will Stanford and the Pac-12 have an edge by playing meaningful matches closer to the NCAA tournament?
Of course, no one else has Macario. The Brazilian native now appears entrenched in the U.S. senior national team. She completed the naturalization process, has a U.S. passport and has been called up twice, though still is not permitted to play in a match, pending approval from FIFA.
Her inclusion among the 23 players named to the U.S. squad – along with six Stanford alums – that will play a friendly against the Netherlands on Nov. 27 speaks to the national team's commitment to her. She was the only collegian named to the team.
This year, Macario will take aim at Stanford records for career points (183 by Christian Press from 2007-10) and goals (71, Press). Macario is 10 points and eight goals short of Press's marks. Last year, she smashed every season school scoring record, scoring 32 goals with 23 assists for 87 points.
Macario has remained on campus despite COVID-19 training restrictions. No contact is allowed at the Stanford sessions – no 1 v. 1 drills or scrimmages -- and there are restrictions on whom can pass the ball to whom and how many can touch the ball. However, Ratcliffe has chosen to approach these as a positive and is focusing on skills and technique.
"The players have really responded well and embraced it," Ratcliffe said. "It'll help us in the long run, there's no doubt about it."
Coach Paul Ratcliffe is eager to see what Catarina Macario will do this season. Photo by Al Chang.
THE KEY, RATCLIFFE said, is building fitness in the four weeks before the opener. Fundamentals cannot substitute for game conditions and for players used to playing year-round, fitness could be in question. It's all part of the big experiment that is the 2020-21 season, one of constant changes and adjustments.
"When we initially came back to school in August, the team was very excited and raring to go," Ratcliffe said. "Then we got the bad news that we weren't going to be able to play until the spring. That was the hardest part. People were really upset and disappointed."
Ratcliffe tried to reassure them it will eventually pay off.
"Let's continue to grow and get better, because a few months from now, we'll be back and competing again," Ratcliffe said. "That's been the hardest part, changing everyone's mindset in getting them to realize that all their hard work is still going to pay off in the end.
"It's been a challenging year but the players have been fantastic. They've shown great flexibility and resilience. They came through it and now they have great perspective and a lot of skills they learned from this adversity.
"There are so many positives to gain from this difficult time. I know they're going to appreciate playing games, appreciate being together, and appreciate how lucky they are to play soccer and represent Stanford."