As the saying goes, “A good offense starts with a good defense,” and nowhere is that more true than with the MSU men’s soccer team.
In their 4-0 obliteration of Western Michigan, the Spartans (1-0-0) faced just five shots from the Broncos, with none of them being on goal.
“We’re definitely a team that’s going to build,” head coach Damon Rensing said. “The combination of (senior defender Kevin) Cope and (junior defender) Ryan Keener together allows us to keep those guys at home and get numbers forward. Their experience and athleticism really helps us be able to play the ball out of the back.”
Having a well-experienced pair in the center of the defense is key to a successful team.
As an example, the center of the U.S. Men’s National Team back line is held down by Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler at center back. Both are former Major League Soccer Defender of the Year winners and have anchored the back line for much of the squad’s current 12-game winning streak, the longest in the world.
Now, after more than three years of continuity, Cope and Keener are growing into that same kind of dynamic duo.
“We’re lucky that we have a lot of trust in our back line and a lot of guys have played together for a long time,” Keener said. “Us having a solid game allows us to be attacking more, it allows us to do what we want to do (offensively).”
The pair have been playing together at MSU for three years, and Keener said they were teammates at the youth level with the Michigan Wolves when they were teenagers.
“We’re good friends off the field, and that makes it all the better just knowing the guy next you,” he said.
Cope said this year’s squad wants to be a possession team, which starts by having a solid defense and being able to play forward.
After spending the summer playing for the Michigan Bucks, he said not knowing the tendencies of his fellow defenders made the game more difficult.
“Playing throughout the summer, playing with different guys other than Ryan, you don’t appreciate it until you get put into situations like that,” Cope said. “Being back with Ryan after so many years, the relationship we have on and off the field, it really shows.”
Last season, then-freshman goalkeeper Zach Bennett replaced then-junior goalkeeper Bryce Dobbins as the starter.
While Bennett isn’t part of the defensive line, the transition was made easier knowing the players in front of him were a solid group.
“It wasn’t a bad transition at all,” Bennett said. “Bryce was a great helper in all that. Once I got on the field, Keener and Cope and the whole back line as a whole kind of gelled really well.”
Bennett finished the 2012 season with a 9-4 record in 13 starts, including a .99 goals against average and three shutouts en route to a Big Ten Championship.
The next game for the Spartans will be against Oregon State (2-0-0) at 5 p.m. Friday at DeMartin Stadium. The defense will need to be on their toes, as the Beavers were ranked top 50 in the nation in scoring offense and total goals a year ago.
Oregon State scored eleven goals in all matches so far this season, six of those coming in an exhibition match, and haven’t conceded any. While Cope said he likes not knowing much about his opponent, he, Keener and Bennett need to have their heads in the game if they hope to stop the attacking-minded Beavers.
“We’re just going to go out there and play and worry about ourselves,” Cope said. “At the end of the day, if we have more goals than them, that’s the ultimate goal.”
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