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Cardinal Connection: Men's Soccer

Dec 3, 2020

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 men's soccer program.

THE FINAL TRAINING session for the Stanford men's soccer team before breaking for Thanksgiving and the holidays, came on one of those perfect Palo Alto afternoons – sunny and warm, with a touch of autumn. 

Jeremy Gunn gathered his players together and thanked them. Nothing has been normal during a tumultuous 2020. Though most of the team was on campus for the fall quarter, it was limited in training -- no contact or scrimmages -- based on Santa Clara County Public Health Department protocols because of COVID-19.

"There's so much uncertainty with so many things, but today was a wonderful day," said Gunn, the Knowles Family Director of Men's Soccer. "The guys were absolutely flying. It was just cool to be saying, 'Well done, for all your hard work and commitment.'"

Gunn has asked a lot of his squad so far, especially patience, and dedication to a season that remains in question. 

"It's hard to know where you stand when you're not competing with the outside world," Gunn said. "But when the time comes to put the whole jigsaw puzzle together, I still feel really confident that we can create something special. Even though we're not able to see it right now, I still think it's coming."

Stanford, with four College Cup appearances in the past five years, returns All-America goalkeeper Andrew Thomas, All-Pac-12 first-team forward Ousseni Bouda, captain Logan Panchot, and team-leading goal scorers Zach Ryan and Gabe Segal from their NCAA semifinal team that went 14-3-5. Stanford is No. 2 in the only 2020 national preseason poll released so far, by College Soccer News. 

 

Stanford's starting XI at the 2019 College Cup. Photo by Andy Mead/ISIphotos.com.

The Atlantic Coast and Sun Belt were the only Division I conferences to play a normal fall season. Stanford is scheduled to gather in late December and begin proper training in early January. The season can begin on Feb. 3. 

The NCAA selections take place on April 18 for a 36-team tournament (including the ACC and Sun Belt), reduced from a normal 48. The College Cup is scheduled for May 13-17 in Cary, North Carolina.

The situation is complicated for Stanford. The county has prohibited contact sports through at least Dec. 21. If the ban continues, the Cardinal would need to train and play outside Santa Clara County, and abide by its 14-day quarantine guidelines.

It's mind-numbing to consider how this all will work. The athletics department is exploring options for the short and long term if the county extends emergency restrictions. 

Gunn is approaching all of this as he did when he took over the program in 2012. His first task was to create a culture of effort and hard-nosed play. The results didn't immediately translate into championships, but the work ethic was instilled. When skill caught up, Stanford won three consecutive national championships and five consecutive Pac-12 titles. 

Today's circumstances present a sort of character test. There have been plenty of disappointments, with none greater than the Pac-12 CEO Group's decision on Aug. 11 to postpone the season. The understandable decision came just after the team had reported for fall camp. 

 

Ninth-year head coach Jeremy Gunn, the Knowles Family Director of Men's Soccer. Photo by Lyndsay Radnedge/ISIphotos.com.

"All you can ever be is a realistic optimist," Gunn said. "There's no point in being a pessimist. There's also no point in living in a dream world. When you really look at this type of situation, we ask the players, Do you want to be the best student-athlete you can be? Because that's what you say you signed up to do, and that's completely in your control. 

"We can't control the COVID situation. We can't control all of the terrible difficulties we've dealt with in 2020. We can't control whether we know we're going to be playing or not. But what we can control is whether we make every day our masterpiece and whether we keep working as hard as we can to become as good as we can. There's going to be beauty and excitement and satisfaction in doing that."

The tendency might be to question whether all the work is worth it. Gunn cautions against that by emphasizing the moment rather than the destination. 

"The outside world has judged our program on the incredible results we've had, but we judge our program internally on the incredible work that we do day to day. If we focus on improving individually every day and on the team improving every day, the hope is that the results take care of themselves.

"Has it been difficult? Absolutely. Has it been what we signed up for? Absolutely not. But what we can say is, We're here together. That's something special. Let's cherish that."