Wednesday, December 8, 2021

MSU peaking at prime time in tough schedule

Alex Difilippo

The MSU men’s soccer team finally is starting to click.

After a stretch midway through the season in which the Spartans went 2-4-0 in six games — including 0-3 in the Big Ten — the team seems to have hit its stride, riding a five game unbeaten streak, with quality victories against Indiana, Michigan and Notre Dame.

When it seemed the season was slipping away from the Spartans in mid-October, team captains Colin Givens and Jeff Ricondo called a team meeting in the locker room.

Three of MSU’s four losses in the stretch came by one goal, and the Spartans’ morale was low. The team felt they deserved to win the close games but couldn’t get a bounce to go their way.

The captains ran the meeting but allowed everyone on the team to speak up and voice their concerns.

Keep in mind, this is a team with only one senior — defender Tim Granaderos. It would have been easy for the Spartans to throw in the towel and start looking ahead to next season.

“We were off to a rough start in the Big Ten,” Givens said. “We were confident that if we kept trying hard and working hard, good things were bound to happen. We didn’t think we could be unlucky five, six, or seven games in a row. We knew if we stayed together and played for each other, good things would start to happen.”

And the ball has started to bounce in the Spartans’ favor.

During the current five game unbeaten streak (4-0-1), MSU has played its typical staunch defense, rooted with strong play from junior goalkeeper Avery Steinlage.

But it’s the Spartans’ attack that has been impressive — being outshot in four of the last five games, but finished when given the opportunity.

And the scoring has been balanced, with six Spartans recording at least six points this season, trumping last season’s total, which featured only five players with six or more points at the end of the year.

Sophomore forward Rubin Bega leads the Spartans with nine goals, while Ricondo sits in a tie atop the conference with seven assists.

Although MSU had a lead late in Sunday’s game before giving up an equalizer to San Diego State, the 1-1 draw is a result the team can hang its hat on.

Entering Sunday’s tilt, San Diego State was ranked No. 11 in the NCAA RPI, which MSU head coach Damon Rensing called the only accurate ranking system. MSU entered the game ranked No. 23 in the RPI.

The Aztecs dictated play throughout the majority of the game, as they controlled the tempo and fired 18 shots (the season-high is 22 against Indiana) on Steinlage.

Although the Spartans were outplayed, the MSU defense bent, but didn’t break.

The team is settling into its new systems that took effect at the beginning of the season. The Spartans transferred from a man-marking defensive system to a more common, zonal configuration. And with a knee injury to sophomore forward Domenic Barone, Rensing often only uses one striker up top and plays with five midfielders.

“Everyone is starting to know their specific roles on the team and everyone has their own part of the field they have to cover,” Bega said. “I feel like we are coming together as a team.”

The toughest test for the Spartans is the final two games of the season, at No. 1 Akron (16-0-0) and at No. 11 Northwestern (9-3-4). The teams are No. 3 and No. 4 in the RPI, respectively.

If MSU can get a win in either of these games, they will have all but locked up a spot in the field of 48 teams receiving a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

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And with the way the Spartans are playing, don’t count MSU out for two big upsets.

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