MSU looks to upset No. 1 Maryland, advance to Big Ten Tournament championship
It’s tourney time in the Big Ten, and on Friday the MSU men’s soccer will face its toughest opponent of the season for the second time. In fact, it would have been impossible for the Spartans to advance to a more challenging quarterfinal matchup than against undefeated Maryland, the No. 1 team in the nation whose prior win against MSU was the Spartans’ largest margin of defeat in the Big Ten this season.
Earlier in the season, the Spartans fell to the Terrapins 2-0 at Ludwig Field in College Park, Md. In the previous spot, the teams were relatively even throughout the first half, with the game scoreless at halftime. With a 54th-minute goal from Jake Rozhansky, however, Maryland seized the lead, only to score again and come away with the win following an own goal.
That was at Ludwig Field, more than a month and a half ago. Since that time, the Spartans have had significant space for growth, with MSU solidifying a rotation and fielding increased contributions from underclassmen.
The game on Friday looks set to be determined through the midfield, which has been an essential part of both teams’ successes this season. Both teams have balanced attacks and seek to control possession throughout the match, and both have leaders who rely on incoming service.
After defeating Penn State to advance to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, head coach Damon Rensing started to prepare his team for the No. 1 team in the country.
“You’ve got two highly competitive teams,” Rensing said after defeating Penn State on Sunday. “Seasons can end, so that’s difficult. There’s emotion. But, you know, you can play with that edge, you just have to be able to relax and execute too, and I thought that’s what our guys did very well.”
For the Spartans, sophomore forward Ryan Sierakowski is the team’s esteemed goal-scorer — a recent selection to the All-Big Ten First Team with nine goals on the season. An industrious attacker, Sierakowski feasts on one-on-one chances from any angle.
Getting the ball to him will be highly dependent on the play of junior All-Big Ten Second-Team member Ken Krolicki and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Giuseppe Barone. Although both attacking midfielders rely heavily on flanking the defense, they will be forced to track back against the Terrapins’ threatening offense. That means both players will have to deliver proper releases to spring forth counters, and when in possession, hold on to make the right decision.
Maryland’s attack orbits around one unmistakable option — Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Gordon Wild. An ambidextrous, speedy and neat player, Wild has circled opposition on his way to 15 goals on the year.
Not to be overlooked, Wild’s service satellites have provided the crucial assists in his breakthroughs. Rozhansky and Amar Sejdic have provided a combined 16 assists, with Eryk Williamson and DJ Reeves also key senders. Maryland as a team has 51 assists on the season, 18 more than the next closest Big Ten team.
The two goalkeepers will be in for a showdown as well. MSU’s Jimmy Hague and Maryland’s Cody Niedermeier will try to outdo each other in the goals-against department, with both atop in the All Big-Ten accolades, although Niedermeier has the upper hand as Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year. The situation favors Maryland in close fashion again.
The Terrapins’ Alex Crognale was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and fellow defender Chris Odoi-Atsem joined him on the All Big-Ten First Team. It wasn’t just defense, though — Crognale had six goals in the season. Odoi-Atsem gave a little something to the Terrapins on the offensive end as well, with a signature looping long ball that earned him six assists.
MSU defender Jimmy Fiscus came off of his first goal of the season on Sunday, a game-winning diving header versus Penn State. Beside Fiscus is a consistent lineup and amalgam of youth and experience, including freshman Michael Wetungu and senior Dewey Lewis. The additional attacking presence of Connor Corrigan could be the impetus for MSU success on the other end.
Expect the dominating midfield presence to win this game, but if it’s a stalemate, the tiebreaker goes to Maryland. With Wild as dangerous out of the counter as in packed vicinities, Maryland is an unyielding threat. If MSU can make quick tackles and press high to diffuse attacks, it can stage the game in the Terrapins’ half.
The X-factor in this game could be youth for MSU. With significant NCAA Tournament ramifications for the winner, true freshmen will face their largest challenge yet. Assertion from Barone and defensive containment from Michael Pimlott can give the Spartans a chance.
Rensing said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday that to win, MSU will have their work cut out for them.
“We really know our identity right now,” Rensing said. “When we played Maryland (earlier this season) there were 7,500 fans, the fifth-largest crowd ever, it was a huge game, a really tough environment. Now that we’re neutral we’re excited to see where we’re at with the best team in the country. … It will take a very good performance, probably our best performance of the year, to get by a very good Maryland team.”
Game time is set for noon at the Grand Park Soccer Complex in Westfield, Ind. and the winner will advance to the Big Ten Tournament championship game and play the winner of No. 3 Wisconsin vs. No. 2 Indiana on Sunday at 2 p.m.