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UCLA men slip past Stanford 2-1 in riveting Pac-12 match

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STANFORD, Calif. – Players sat in stone-faced silence. Coaches shook their heads then offered words of encouragements to their charges, but what stood out the most was that no member of the Stanford men’s soccer team was looking for pity after dropping a 2-1 decision to No. 3 UCLA in a match the Cardinal had mostly controlled.

It was the third straight one-goal loss for the Cardinal (7-5-2, 1-4-1 Pac-12) to a top-five team, and on the year all five of Stanford’s losses have come to teams currently ranked in the national top eight.

The Bruins improved to 9-3-4 overall and 4-1-3 in Pac-12 play with the win.

Stanford outshot the Bruins 15-8 in the match and stretched the UCLA defense well to its limit, but the Bruins responded with seven saves from goalkeeper Earl Edwards, Jr. and a pair of balls cleared off the line by its defenders. And the Bruins made their fewer chances count, as Gage Zerboni netted a 40th-minute equalizer and Nathan Smith scored the eventual winner two minutes into the second half.

“You talk about outplaying, outshooting, whatever, it’s a team sport. Whether it’s the striker being the star or the goalkeeper being the star, they just did enough to edge it,” said Stanford head coach Jeremy Gunn. “It’s tough for us because we’re right there with it, but we’ve got four games left and we’re playing against and going toe-to-toe against the best teams in the country.”

The goals from Zerboni and Smith erased a 1-0 lead that Stanford had deservedly taken in the 31st minute thanks to a first-class goal from Jordan Morris. The freshman striker expertly finished a tic-tac-toe sequence that began with Ty Thompson tapping to Zach Batteer who fed Morris up the left flank. Morris then beat a defender one-on-one to get the edge and rifled a shot that beat Edwards to the far post.

“They’re a handful, you can ask any coaches or back four in the country. They don’t want to play against us,” Gunn said about the doggedness of his attackers. “That’s all you can hope for. You’re always asking questions, always getting after a defense. Those teams don’t want to play against us because we’re going to go against them non-stop, we’ve just got to make our chances count.”

Morris’ strike opened up the flow of the match, which before that moment had featured only three shots between the two squads. Batteer and Jimmy Callinan both shot wide moments after Morris’ goal, and in the 38th minute Edwards was played through but UCLA’s keeper came off his line to challenge and stifled the attempt.

Only 41 seconds later Callinan forced a save from Edwards, but the Bruin keeper distributed quickly, opening up the sequence which led to UCLA’s equalizer. UCLA’s Victor Munoz kept a ball in the box after deflecting a cross off a Cardinal defender and played a pass through the back line to Zerboni who beat Cardinal keeper Drew Hutchins to the far post.

Stanford would get a golden opportunity to retake the lead in the half’s final minute. Batteer made an excellent hustle play to save a ball as it approached the Bruin end line, beating Edwards and playing back to Morris who fired on frame but had his shot blocked just before the line by a UCLA defender.

“The first half we were amazing, we were definitely on top, we deserved to get the go-ahead goal. But it was disappointing to let a goal in in a half in which we had done so well,” Gunn noted.

Yet it only took two minutes into the second half for the Cardinal’s momentum to be stopped cold. The Bruins passed around, building up for a chance, and that chance came to fruition when Victor Chavez tapped to Smith, who brought the ball center of the box and blasted a shot that deflected off a defender and wrong-footed Hutchins, who could only watch the ball settle into the back of the net.

UCLA took control until about the hour mark, when Stanford built up into a chance for JJ Koval, but the captain’s 61st-minute header was batted away by a diving Edwards. Three minutes later Morris again had an effort heading into the goal with Edwards out of position, but again the UCLA defense cleared it off the line and out.

The frantic final 20 minutes featured entertaining end-to-end soccer, as the two keepers combined for five saves, three by Hutchins. The Cardinal continued to pile the pressure onto the Bruins, but saw its last great chance go for naught as a loose ball ended up at the foot of Aaron Kovar, who blasted wide with the goal at his mercy.

Stanford comes back to Cagan Stadium Sunday to host San Diego State at 1 p.m.

“We’ve got to look forward,” Gunn said about finishing the weekend on a winning note. “San Diego State’s got a very good team, and there are no easy games. We talked about how tough this is. It’s tough but it’s exciting but what more could you ask for, you’re in unbelievably competitive games.”

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