"We made a lot of positive steps forward," Gunn said as his team prepares for the ultimate opening weekend, which begins Friday night with No. 2 Maryland visiting Stanford at 7 p.m., followed by No. 3 Georgetown on Sunday at 4 p.m. "We moved our RPI from 100th to 50th in the nation by season's end. Obviously there is more to come, more work to do."
That could be exposed with a weekend that features two teams that met in the College Cup Final Four last year. Georgetown advanced to the title game, losing to Indiana, 1-0.
Meanwhile, Stanford was slowly getting better. After opening the season 3-5-0 and getting outscored by 11-9, the Cardinal went 6-3-1, with a 22-9 goal deferential, the rest of the way.
"As the season moved along we became more effective as a group," Gunn said. "We took that into the offseason, where we were able to be more specific and define roles."
The seniors, goalkeeper Drew Hutchins, midfielder JJ Koval and defender Tyler Conklin, have a chance to leave the program in better shape than when they entered.
In 2009, the Cardinal advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament (the last time Stanford reach the postseason), losing to top-ranked Akron. Last year's seniors were involved in that run and they left an impression on this year's team.
"The coaching staff has been here 1 1/2 years and have really changed the program," Koval said. "Last year's senior class had unbelievable leadership and amazing players. It was a pleasure to play with them."
Several of those grads — Adam Jahn and Hunter Gorskie among them — already have achieved a measure of success in the MLS.
"We're realizing a new potential," Koval said. "The coaches came in and there was a complete change. There was even a change to way we looked at practice. We became a tough, combative team and one of the hardest working."
Gunn has the team thinking of the NCAA tournament.
"We have a simplified goal," he said. "We want to play as many games as we possibly can together and that means making the tournament, or at least putting ourselves in position."
Last season's strong finish indicates just such a potential for the Cardinal entering the year. A strong start also would help, though the first weekend appears daunting.
"We hope to become one of the best teams in the country," Gunn said. "It's a very tough test for the guys but a wonderful challenge and an incredible opportunity."
Koval was named team captain, an obvious choice to his teammates.
"He's a big, tough defender," Conklin said. "You want to follow him into battle. I think you can lead by example and vocally. His commitment to the program is awesome. Every day it's the best day of his life. He's super-excited, has a lot of energy and he wants to make others better."
Most of last year's scoring went with Jahn to the San Jose Earthquakes, tough the good news is that five returning players scored a combined 15 goals last year, led by junior forward Zach Batteer with six.
"One of our strengths is the togetherness of the group," Gunn said. "Zach is exciting to watch, has an incredible attitude and is fearless."
Hutchins returns to defend the net for the Cardinal.
"He's a phenomenal goalkeeper," Gunn said. "I think he's underrated. He loves playing the game."
And as Koval pointed, he does more than stop goals.
"Drew naturally works hard," Koval said. "When he talks, people listen. He can see the entire field and he organizes the team the way no one else can. He does an excellent job at that."
In addition to Batteer and fellow junior Jimmy Callinan, Stanford has a trio of redshirt juniors who are in their fourth year of the program, including defender Matt Taylor, whose older sister Lindsay was an All-American for the Stanford womens' soccer team.
"He's made vast improvements," Gunn said of Taylor. "He's competing for playing time back there."
Redshirt juniors Bobby Edwards and Austin Meyer also saw action last year. Edwards appeared in 17 matches, including nine starts. Meyer, who scored a goal, played in 14 matches with one start.
Sophomore midfielder Aaron Kovar has been named to preseason All-American teams. He scored three goals while starting 12 of the 15 games in which he appeared.
Kovar heads a solid sophomore class that could blossom this season. He's joined by midfielders Ty Thompson, who started all but four games, and Eric Verso, who appeared in 15 contests, scoring three times, forward Adrian Alabi, and defenders Brandon Vincent, who started 17 matches, and Slater Meehan.
Forward Jordan Morris leads a solid freshmen class. Morris has worked his way into the starting lineup. Other freshmen include defenders Marshall Glover, Brian Nana-Sinkam and Cameron Chesnutt, midfielder Trevor Hyman, forward Mark Verso and goalkeepers Andrew Epstein and Nico Corti.
Stanford still is looking for its first conference title since 2001.
"We want to win the Pac-12, which is a tough conference," Gunn said.