by Matthew MacCormack
SAN FRANCISCO — For Northeastern men’s soccer coach Chris Gbandi, this weekend’s matchups with Pac-12 powers Cal and No. 1 Stanford represent more than just challenging early-season tune-ups.
It’ll be the second time in three years the Huskies are jetting across the country to battle the two West Coast giants, but this year’s excursion is the first for Gbandi, who took reigns of the NU program last year. Gbandi guided the Huskies to a 6-11-0 record last season, doubling the team’s win total from a tumultuous 2015 campaign.
As Gbandi, a former No.1 overall pick in the 2002 MLS Super draft, prepares for his second season at the helm, he hopes to continue building positive momentum. And he sees Cal and Stanford as models for future Husky success.
“We thought it was important for recruiting to get a trip like this,” Gbandi said just a day prior to the Huskies’ flight out West.
“We get some kids to know that ultimately our goal is to be like programs like Cal and Stanford. In order to do that, you kind of have to see and gauge where you are [compared to them].”
The Huskies are spurning the chaos of early September in Boston, opting for the rolling hills of Northern California as the backdrop for the pair of challenging non-conference matchups this weekend. NU will face off against Cal in Berkeley at 7:30 p.m. EST on Friday, before a Sunday evening matchup with Stanford in Palo Alto at 8 p.m EST.
Both games will be broadcast live on WRBB Sports. Josh Brown, Matt MacCormack and Dan McLoone will be on the call.
The Huskies (0-1-0) dropped their opening game of the season to New Hampshire on Monday. The Wildcats won, 1-0, on an overtime penalty kick after NU senior midfielder Charlton Muhlauri was tabbed with a penalty in the 100th minute.
Seven freshmen appeared in the game for the Huskies, showcasing the scope of NU’s youth movement. The freshman class, which contains 10 players, is Gbandi’s first true recruiting class since he started as coach. The roster is also flush with five seniors, including keeper Jonathan Thueresson and All-Colonial Athletic Association Honorable Mention defender Ackim Mpofu,
“Some of the new guys stepped up and played well,” Gbandi said of the UNH matchup.
“But I thought it took the group overall just a little bit longer than we thought we to get into the game: probably about 15-20 minutes to get into the game.”
Slow starts won’t fly this weekend, with the Huskies facing a major uptick in competition. NU will hope to be more successful in their second survey of NorCal: in 2015, the Huskies fell, 1-0, to then-No.16 Stanford, and 1-0 to unranked Cal.
For Gbandi, the road trip is a great opportunity for the Huskies to practice against play-styles they’ll eventually see in their CAA conference schedule.
“Cal is very similar to Delaware, in terms of how they play,” Gbandi said
“The movement off the ball, the simplicity of their play, pretty creative playmakers, throw a lot of numbers forward, really put pressure on you.
Then Stanford is more the likes of Hofstra in terms of how they’re so direct, how they really get at you athletically.”
Cal struggled through a 5-10-2 campaign last season, but won three Pac-12 titles from 2006-2010 and registered back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2013 and 2014. The Golden Bears (0-1-0) are led by redshirt senior Jose Carrera-Garcia – who led the team with five assists last season – and four other returning starters.
No. 1 Stanford is a bit of a different animal. The Cardinal (1-0-0) are fresh off back-to-back NCAA championships in 2015 and 2016. Stanford didn’t allow a goal during the NCAA tournament last year, and blanked Portland in a 1-0 victory to open the season. All told, the Cardinal haven’t allowed a goal in 638 consecutive minutes of play. What’s more, the team returns nine of its 11 starters from a season ago, and is the only squad in the country to welcome back multiple All-Americans – senior forward Foster Langsdorf and senior defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce.
It will no doubt be a challenging weekend for Northeastern, but it’s also an opportunity for the team to grow and build. Gbandi says the team’s veterans will serve as the perfect example for the abundance of young players on this year’s squad. Many of the team’s elder statesmen went on the same trip in 2015, and have the experience to help younger players prepare. Gbandi estimates as many as four freshmen could start in Friday’s game at Cal.
“I think once the game starts, it’s not old or young, sophomore or freshman; it doesn’t really matter,” Gbandi said.
“Ultimately when the ball’s kicked, it’s just who the best players are.”