For much of the season, the MSU men’s soccer team found itself in a resurgence. After falling below .500 in 2015, missing the NCAA Tournament and bowing out in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the Spartans responded with an upstart season, climbing the national rankings all the way to No. 12 in the NSCAA coaches poll.
The run seemed destined to climb past expectations as MSU battled to a spot in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals before losing a wire-to-wire contest with No. 1 Maryland.
While far from the favorite to eclipse a national title, the Spartans were poised to be a spoiler in the NCAA Tournament behind the offensive prowess of forward Ryan Sierakowski and the goal-stopping ability of Jimmy Hague.
But as national tournaments go, feel-good stories aren’t always finished.
MSU took Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to the wire, taking a tied game into an electric round of penalty kicks.
After 10 rounds of only one miss a piece, both teams sent their best to the line again.
Trying to avoid the upset and keep the season alive, Sierakowski sent the ball skyward. Hands on his head, he was in disbelief, hopping up and down.
A minute later, SIUE defender Austin Ledbetter planted his foot and put a strike under keeper Hague’s right arm.
SIUE 9, No. 13 MSU 8 in penalty kicks.
“I thought it was well-played by both teams,” head coach Damon Rensing said. “At the end of the day we just couldn’t get that game-winning goal, and then it goes to PKs and it’s tough.”
MSU had dominated the game, holding most of the possession and creating the better scoring opportunities behind 19 shots, eight of which were shots on net. Though they found the better opportunities, they couldn’t crack SIUE keeper Kyle Dal Santo.
Though MSU’s shots were numerous, they were often well defended by a structurally sound SIUE team that won a Missouri Valley Conference championship on the strength of its defense.
MSU’s lone goal was a crack off the foot of Michael Marcantognini from approximately 25 yards out and stretched into the upper left corner with 5:08 remaining in the first half.
MSU had generated the bulk of the opportunities and the bounce to Marcantognini ended MSU’s offensive frustrations.
“Well, I thought the first half went the way we wanted it,” Rensing said. “It was 1-0, and we really didn’t give any chances up to SIUE. I thought the next 15 or 20 minutes we were kind of just tentative, we played not to win and they got some territory, and they had the wind.”
MSU did play tentative, allowing SIUE too much time and space in the second half as SIUE generated seven of its nine total shots.
The Spartan offense, however, found itself in a similar position as the football team, knocking on the doorstep of points only for opportunities to slip from their grasp.
Sierakowski raced through the box multiple times for his passes and crosses to miss targets by inches or find empty field without a Spartan in the area for a chance to bury the shot.
While the Spartans grappled with scoring chances, SIUE was left to hang around, slowly finding its way back into the game. MSU’s scoring chances missed by inches, but an inch was what SIUE needed to knot the game up.
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Keegan McHugh was alone on with pitch in front of him as a clearing attempt had ricocheted right to him. Like Marcantognini, he let the shot fly from 25 yards this time finding the upper right corner.
“Credit to their guy, they had a really good shot,” Rensing said. “Then we had three really good chances to put the game away in the last 15 minutes and one, their goalie made a great save.”
MSU’s best chance to advance was a three shot barrage that was stifled by Dal Santo in the box.
“We outplayed them and certainly out-chanced them in the game, but if you don’t put away those chances it can come down to PK’s and then you’re on the coin toss,” Rensing said.
For as much as Sierakowski had been the hero for MSU all season, he found himself on the flip side having missed the goal that would have kept MSU alive for at least another round.
“It’s tough because we had one heck of a season,” Sierakowski said. “Just in this game we came out and we outplayed them for most of the game. We were up by one and then they hit a banger and tied it up, but other than that I thought our season was going really well.”
Inches cost MSU the game, and on the final play as Hague barely missed the ball. In a year of resurgence, the inches just weren’t there.
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