The MSU men’s soccer team has been a melting pot of shortcomings and resilience three games into the regular season. As the Spartans have hinted at both a superb season and a disappointing one, they will be tested on Friday afternoon with the Big Ten regular season beginning at home against Rutgers.
Of the large NCAA Division I sports, soccer is different because the conference season starts early. Just three games into the regular season, MSU will take on Rutgers, which tied for third place last year in the Big Ten.
MSU comes into the Rutgers game with offensive weapons but have also showed a lack of defensive cohesion, the opposite of what is usually produced from Spartan teams.
“We’re going to have to keep tightening things up defensively,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said, following the game against Columbia.
The Spartans have had many defensive lapses this season. In the opening three games of each of the previous two seasons, the Spartans only allowed one combined goal. This year through three games, MSU has already given up four.
The Spartans have allowed the first goal in each game of the season so far, and against Columbia, a disallowed 90th-minute header was one missed call away from stopping a tenacious comeback from MSU.
“We had to do a better job of defending as a team,” junior midfielder Ken Krolicki said in a previous article by The State News. “We can’t allow that goal to go in. We kind of got lucky there.”
While it could be argued MSU has struggled to find its identity so far on the field, the Spartans have turned to offensive possession that has worked thus far.
Freshman Giuseppe Barone has gone from being an unknown to most fans to a star, and sophomore Ryan Sierakowski has leapfrogged his promising freshman season. DeJuan Jones, despite battling through injury, was the difference-maker against Columbia, scoring a late goal and assisting the earlier equalizer. Jones should see even more action as the season progresses.
Through three games, MSU is averaging the third-most goals per game in the Big Ten.
However, Rutgers is a changed team, offensively and defensively.
Last year, the Scarlet Knights played through, around and over Big Ten opposition offensively, scoring a conference-high 1.95 goals per game. Forward Jason Wright led the team, racking up 13 goals in 21 games. Rutgers also had two players tied for fifth in assists per game in the Big Ten, including JP Correa and Mitch Lurie, who were instrumental to the team’s success.
The Scarlet Knights were also average defensively, but their offensive efficiency meant that they came out good enough to finish tied for third place in the Big Ten standings.
Through the first three games of the season, Rutgers hasn’t scored once.
Rutgers’ opposition has scored plenty, however, with eight goals on the season, which equals the combined shot total that the Scarlet Knights have registered this year. Compare that to MSU, which has launched 46 shots in the same amount of appearances.
Momentum is also not the strong suit for the 0-3 Scarlet Knights, still peeling the band-aids from a 5-0 blowout loss Charlotte.
And while sometimes a team is just unlucky, like when MSU dominated every single recorded numerical against Oral Roberts University but still lost 2-0, that has not been the case for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have only shot 2.7 times per game this year, but have been shutout every game this season.
Wright still plays for Rutgers, but the lack of service has primed him and the offense for failure so far. The two leading assist-men on the team last season, Correa and Lurie, both departed. Rutgers is still trying to find a midfield balance to protect their goal but send chances Wright’s way.
It hasn’t worked yet.
Between the defense that has opened up for Rutgers and the offensive potency of MSU, the Spartans can feel confident having such a match to start conference play. Between the youthful attacking trio of Jones, Barone and Sierakowski and the control of possession, MSU should control the Rutgers game from the start.
From there, it will just be a matter of limiting cheap chances for Rutgers and being composed in front of goal. Plain and simple, the Spartans couldn’t have asked for any better for their first Big Ten game of the 2016 campaign.
Game time against Rutgers is set for 5 p.m. on Friday at DeMartin soccer stadium.
Prediction: MSU 2 Rutgers 0