With a 2-1 victory against Akron, MSU men’s soccer earned their ninth win of the season, surpassing last year’s total with five games remaining.
The result showed the team’s unity and durability, following just one day of rest after Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Wisconsin.
After their two early goals, the Spartans had to survive a late flurry of Zips attacks with a sturdy, collective defensive performance, a mark of the team’s improved chemistry and experience this year.
“It’s just a maturation process, I mean, there’s a lot of the same players,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said following the win. “We played a lot of good games last year. We just didn’t find ways to win these games.”
The Spartans have a 9-2-1 on the season with a nearly spotless record at home, the lone blemish of seven games being the Wisconsin tie. Moreover, the team sits tied for second in the Big Ten standings with 10 conference points.
“Last year was a hard year for all of us,” sophomore forward Hunter Barone said. “We were all so used to, in our clubs, just winning a lot of games. ... This year in the spring, we worked out hard, and we always just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to come back next year with fire and have that edge.’ I think last year maybe helped us a little bit come back this year stronger.”
A standout characteristic of this year’s iteration so far has been resiliency. Following ties or losses, MSU rebounded with a win on every possible occasion this year.
“They don’t change much, they just do what we do,” Rensing said. “In soccer, that goes well. We don’t get too high when we’re up. I don’t think we get too down when we’re down, we’re losing, and I think this college season is crazy and comes fast and furious.”
The game against Akron tested that mentality.
It was very much a tug-of-war in the first half, with both sides hoping to gain control in the midfield without relinquishing a defensive position.
In the 23rd minute, MSU capitalized on a defensive error in the form of a misjudged lunge. Sophomore forward Ryan Sierakowski tumbled to the ground, saw the referee’s confirmation of a penalty kick and retrieved the ball.
“We knew Akron is a very possession-based team, and with that they’re very susceptible on the counter,” Sierakowski said. “When we do win the ball, if the counter is on, we went for it, and in these types of games you just have to put them away.”
MSU’s leading goal-scorer made no mistake from the penalty spot, where he is now two-of-two for the season. Going into halftime, it was MSU’s only official shot, with Akron rendering two attempts.
The second half was infused with several more dauntless treks upfield. But while Akron was forthcoming in imposing its offensive will, MSU was content to furtively sneak in the second goal in the adolescence of the second half.
Redshirt-junior midfielder Ryan Scott made his first statistical contribution in a college soccer game, as he delivered the setting corner kick that would confound the defense. Scott’s delivery found junior defender Jimmy Fiscus, who was sneaking toward the near post. The ball came in too rapidly for Fiscus to attempt a shot, however, so he nodded on the ball.
The skim and change of direction disoriented everyone except Barone. With an unobstructed net in front of him, Barone easily popped the ball in for the deciding goal, his second of the year.
“My job was just to stay in front of the goalie, make sure if anything’s hit or anything bumps loose that I can tap it in,” Barone said. “Jimmy got a flick on it, so credit to him. And the ball kind of just fell right to me. ... It’s a gift.”
The game swiveled back and forth, with both teams managing shots on goal. The next swoop of fortune landed on the side of Akron, when Skye Harter spun to turn a piece of stoppage time into Akron’s hope of revival. The redshirt-freshman cannoned a traveling shot towards the post, but MSU’s defense had it covered.
They, in fact, had it covered too much. Senior Dewey Lewis slid in to intercept the shot, and the ball bounced high off of his outstretched leg. The shot loomed in the air, with redshirt-sophomore goalkeeper Jimmy Hague already having anticipated the shot and having dived on the ground. The shot fell past Hague’s reach and serendipitously beyond the goal line.
Akron’s goal was all for naught, however, as they failed to remain levelheaded enough to close out the game. Two late Akron red cards, one to a coaching staff member, formalized the MSU result.
“You just have to keep plugging away,” Rensing said. “The red card helped us because it just gave us an extra player on the field, and we were able to break some pressure when they were getting some rhythm.”
With the win against Akron, MSU will have a chance on Saturday against Penn State, 2-3 conference record, to become one of the first teams in not only the Big Ten, but also the nation to earn 10 wins.
“At first, I expect an eight-hour bus ride,” Rensing said. “It’ll be a very good game. They’re well-coached. It’s a pivotal point in the Big Ten, so if we can go in there and just try to continue what we’re doing and play well and a couple breaks go our way, maybe we’ll come out on top.”