Ryan Sierakowski ran away from the defense and into the forward-most position. It’s surely a sight that fans of MSU men’s soccer know well — the sophomore forward lengthening the grassy distance between himself and his defenders en route to a solo goal.
While self-evident of Sierakowski’s first two seasons in NCAA soccer, however, the roots of that statement stretch back to before anyone knew the All-Big Ten First Team forward would be scoring goals. Not even Sierakowski knew.
Sierakowski began his career as a central midfielder, “box-to-box” and the No. 8. Then he was a center back defender, with some right back play mixed in there. But that wasn’t all for the versatile prospect recruited as far west as Stanford. Trying his foot at winger, Sierakowski eventually started to advance up the pitch.
“I’ve always been a player with good endurance,” Sierakowski said. “I try to use that.”
Undoubtedly, Sierakowski’s work rate is his hallmark quality, head coach Damon Rensing said. It’s what separates him from other forwards.
“Well, his work rate is exceptional,” Rensing said. “He’s got all the tools. He can play back to goal. He can score with his head, he can score with either feet, so he’s versatile and he’s got most of the traits that a forward at the highest college level would want to have.”
Sierakowski’s scoring record is enviable as well — and possibly is a result of his balance. It has been for two seasons.
In 37 career outings, Sierakowski owns 16 career goals, nine of them in 2016. He has the highest goal-per-game and point-per-game rates in program history.
Sierakowski also stands jointly atop MSU’s game-winning goal standing with former striker Adam Montague. With two years of eligibility remaining, Sierakowski has eight game-winners. His six gamer winners this season are a program best in a single year campaign.
“I think I’ve grown into a leadership role, but I’m not really the type of leader to lead with my voice but more so by example,” Sierakowski said. “And just with the striker piece, like scoring goals. If I’m not scoring goals, I don’t put that added pressure of having to. I’ll try to get assists like against Notre Dame. I didn’t score but I got the assist, so I’m just happy to help in any way.”
Sierakowski’s growth has corresponded to that of the team. Although his seven-goal freshman season was one of the best in school history, there was nothing fun about the rookie venture for Sierakowski. The team went 8-9-2 with just one win in the last six games.
Following the ramshackle year, the team collectively vowed to improve. The guys moved in early for practices in the spring. Each player sweated a little bit more and stayed a little bit longer. Sierakowski’s summer was spent in Sweden and Denmark competing against eight professional teams.
“Last year was a hard year for all of us,” Hunter Barone, sophomore midfielder on the team, said following a midseason win against Akron. “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 to come back this year stronger.”
It worked. The sophomore class has abraded the memory of last season with a 13-5-1 record in 2016. Captaining the front, Sierakowski adapted to the physicality of play and has become more resilient to the challenges of defenders. Perhaps nothing better represented that than MSU’s come-from-behind 2-1 overtime win against Western Michigan University.
In the in-state standoff, Sierakowski was shackled until the 78th minute, when he converted a penalty to tie the game. In overtime, the method wouldn’t be so straightforward. A trailing layoff from teammate DeJuan Jones gave Sierakowski the chance, but he had to fizz his effort across the goalkeeper from 16 yards.
No problem. The ball met the twine, and his first ever sudden-death goal prompted Sierakowski’s shirtless sprint to the student section.
The win was MSU’s first and only of the season in overtime, snapping a 13-month gap of overtime success.
“It’s two sides of the spectrum,” Sierakowski said. “Just one having the shortest season possible and now ... it’s awesome.”
Rensing has noticed the growth of his team this season as well. Although the team regularly starts just a single senior, the maturity of the younger members is something to be proud of.
And he’s taken pride in the growth of his center forward.
“Last year, l kind of said he came in hoping he’d score some goals and was certainly talented enough to do that,” Rensing said. “And now, I think that he comes into this season and these games knowing he can score goals.
“We’ve got good leadership in the middle with (Brad) Centala and Kenny (Krolicki) and even in the back line with (Jimmy) Fiscus and Dewey (Lewis), but Ryan’s starting to come along as a leader in that attacking area.”
The accolades have shown nothing else. Improving upon an All-Big Ten Freshman Team start, Sierakowski has beckoned plaudits from numerous organizations.
Yet, while tied for third all-time in goals and having made his mark on the program, there’s still work to do for Sierakowski. He’s just a sophomore, after all.
“In a lot of ways, I think there’s still certainly things he can grow on personally,” Rensing said. “But he’s great to have on the team. He’s a soccer junkie — I mean, he works as hard and puts as much time into the game as anybody on our team, so that’s where I think he makes a lot of leaps and bounds. He’s great that way.”