Column: MSU soccer has bright future, but could have advanced further this season
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I went home and saw my brother play in a district basketball game.
“You played well,” I told him afterward.
My brother’s squad—the good guys—bounded ahead to a 15-point lead in the first quarter, only to abdicate it at the hands of a bloodthirsty full-court press in the second half. The good guys totally capitulated, and the bad guys came all the way back to win on the back of a furiously paced fourth quarter run.
What can you say after a game like that?
“You played well.”
I’d imagine the family members of MSU men’s soccer players shared similar phrases of consolation with their loved ones following a penalty shootout loss to SIU Edwardsville in round one of the NCAA Tournament.
After Michael Marcantognini electrified DeMartin Stadium with a long strike that gave the home Spartans an edge in the first half, a fortuitous foray from the visitors merged the teams to a 1-1 score line. And while MSU preserved possession most of the second half, the second goal didn’t come.
When overtime passed and the perpetual gridlock ensued, only one option remained: the notorious PK shootout. It was there that, in the most breathtaking and heartbreaking of fashions, the favorites fell.
“You played well.”
It is a nice sentiment. Even better, the dictum maintains some veracity in about 95 percent of losses and confers a reassuring presence without a gratuitous sugarcoat.
Simply, it’s a Band-Aid. It’s not going to infect the wound and it’s the best you can do, but the remedial powers are limited.
The thing is, more accurate—albeit less appropriate—for members of the soccer team would be: “You’ve played better.” Sorry, but it’s true.
While an apology seems perfunctory following such an egregious breach of decorum, in no way do I mean “you’ve played better” as any sort of slight.
In 2016, the Spartans did some rather incredible things: setting the school home win total, eclipsing last year’s record with more than a month remaining in the season and fielding an NCAA home tournament game, just to name a few.
Throughout the year, MSU made a point of eluding draws and ensnaring wins, and sophomore forward Ryan Sierakowski seemed to have the superpower of game-winning goal-gathering and is tied with a school record with six in the season. The first home loss of the year was the final home match, and that speaks for itself.
I repeat. You’ve played better.
Furthermore, the loss came in a penalty shootout.
In the tactically demanding, deftness-dependent game of soccer, the penalty shootout is the solo aspect that doesn’t require all that much skill. There’s a lot of luck and a lot of chance, and there are a whole lot of prayers sent up.
SIUE had its prayers answered.
If the tiebreaker would have been an eye test, MSU would have won. The Spartans doubled the Cougars’ shot total 19-9. If the tiebreaker would have been regular season performance, the Spartans would have advanced; the Spartans had three more wins on the year. If the tiebreaker would have been raw skill—well, you get it.
You’ve played better, but you also played well.
So while it’s easy to castigate MSU for not being slightly more efficient or not closing down a little bit quicker, faulting the team is only in light of an unexpectedly prodigious regular season. When considering the progression of the youthful crew from last year’s eight-win nightmare to a top-ranked program, criticism becomes even more scarce.
Maybe what makes reproof impossible though is that the season didn’t really seem to come to an end, not when the team only lost two frequent contributors. Rather, it reached a caesura of play.
That’s why I’m comfortable telling this team: “You’ve played better.”
See, I guess why I tell my brother that he played well irrespective of his or the team’s performance is because it’s his senior year in high school—his final chance to don a jersey and be a part of an official team. Heck, it’s my final chance to watch him.
That’s not the case with MSU, not at all. Five underclassmen started against SIUE. The same amount of freshmen started as seniors, and it usually leans in favor of the greenhorns; the only reason for that game’s balance was because Big Ten Freshman of the Year Giuseppe Barone was injured.
Moreover, of the year’s 12 leading point-scorers, 10 will return to the team next season, all with invaluable experience under their belt. Sierakowski was a sophomore and goalkeeper Jimmy Hague was a redshirt-sophomore, meaning the two lone-wolf lines are undisturbed.
So, while a “you played well” is courteous and a “you’ve played better” can even be complimentary, I’ve got one better. For as intoxicatingly good as this year was and as sobering as the denouement may have been, it’s time to issue the all-timer of conciliatory remarks.
The fact is, there’s always next year, and that should be received by this group with total positivity.