STANFORD -- It's easy to understand why Stanford is the top-ranked men's soccer team in the nation.

Back-to-back NCAA titles can't hurt in terms of reputation.

There's also the matter of the starting lineup, which is intact in the midfield and at forward.

So, is the Cardinal poised to make another run at the College Cup?

"I think lots of people always ask that question and the answer is always going to be the same," said Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn, in his sixth year on The Farm "We're going to focus on how well can we play, how can each individual player improve and see if we can just evolve as we go through the season. Where that takes us? The goal is always to play as many games as you can."

Leave it to a co-captain to reiterate the train of thought.

"We'll make it very clear in the first game of the season that we'll take it one game at a time," senior center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce said. "And once we win the Pac-12, it will be on to looking forward to winning that national championship."

Stanford is the only team to return a pair of All-Americans, with senior forward Foster Langsdorf joining Hilliard-Arce on the watch list for the 2017 MAC Hermann Trophy, which is soccer's equivalent to the Heisman.

Hilliard-Arce anchored a back line that didn't surrender a goal in last year's NCAA Tournament, while Langsdorf led the Cardinal with 15 goals, which ranked fourth nationally.

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"It takes a team to win games," Gunn said. "But if I was on a team, I'd love to be lining up next to those two guys. It gives you a great boost knowing that you're going into the fight with two great warriors, two great players, two great people."

Not that anyone on the roster can rest assured of inheriting a spot on the pitch.

"You know Gunn, he always is making sure there is no complacency," Langsdorf said. "So no one is ever safe."

The immediate holes in the lineup were vacated by goalkeeper Andrew Epstein, also an All-American last year, and center back Brian Nana-Sinkam, a first-round pick in the MLS Draft.

"I think the most exciting part is who's coming in and filling those gaps," Langsdorf said. "We've lost two big players and I guess we can be a little bit worried about that. We know Andrew is a two-time hero for us, and Brian added a ton of pace in our back line. But I think we're filling in those voids really well."

At the first exhibition game on Sunday, it was redshirt senior Nico Corti guarding the pipes, while freshman Logan Panchot was plugged into right back, with redshirt junior Adam Mosharrafa shifting next to Hilliard-Arce in the center.

"If you think of that jigsaw puzzle, if there's pieces scattered everywhere it's hard to know what the picture looks like," Gunn said. "The great thing with our culture, the great thing with our program today, when you come in as a new person there are people showing you the way. There's lots of pieces in place, so it's pretty obvious what you need to do."

The revamped defense didn't appear to miss a beat during a 3-0 shutout of Portland at Cagan Stadium.

After closing out last season with a stretch of nearly 550 minutes without allowing a goal, is anyone even capable of scoring on the Cardinal?

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"Don't even go there," said Gunn, with a laugh. "Of course, yes. But I'd like to say whether we've let a goal in in the last minute of the last game or we've not let one in, we're going to try and defend as hard as we can in the next minute. And it will always be that way."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Stanford enjoyed more than a one-goal margin of victory only a trio of times while claiming a third Pac-12 title in a row, even splitting overtime results at the tail end of the regular season.

"That's one kick that just so happened to go our way," Langsdorf said. "We were getting by a little bit last year, and you can't rely on that. But I think this year should be more fun to watch. Since the front six will have another year together, I think we'll be doing a lot more."

Nothing less is expected from the top-ranked team in the nation, fresh off summer vacation and with its sight on a NCAA three-peat.

"I would always like a little bit more rest and recuperation time, but it's exciting," Gunn said. "We live for this time of year."

This article is written by Vytas Mazeika from Palo Alto Daily News, Calif. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.