It was a big get for MSU men's soccer — an opening-round home game in the NCAA Tournament. As was announced Monday afternoon, the Spartans will host SIU Edwardsville at 1 p.m. Thursday
"I’m happy to be in the tournament, and I’m really happy to be hosting," MSU Director of Athletics Mark Hollis said in a press release from MSU Athletics. "It’s going to be great for soccer fans from all over mid-Michigan to be part of this great final home match.”
For eighth-year head coach Damon Rensing, moving onto the tournament is nothing new. With the awarding of a place on Monday, the Spartans have now qualified for the NCAA Tournament six times under Rensing.
Rensing is also accustomed to more than a one-round ramble once in the bracket. His teams have gone 6-5-1 in NCAA tournaments games during his reign, with two Elite Eight journeys in 2013 and 2014.
Still, the run this season from the Spartans has been extraordinary in light of last year's truancy — an eight-win season in which the Spartans folded in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
The 2016 iteration of MSU men's soccer currently stands at 13-5-1, with an unbeaten record at home (9-0-1). A win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament would hardly be shocking and would continue the trend set forth by the reinvigorated squad.
“It’s amazing honestly, I mean, our fans are always great," senior captain defender Dewey Lewis said in the release. "We always prefer to play at home obviously, we’re just used to it, and hopefully, we can get a win against SIUE."
Yet, the confetti and banners are far from festooned around the stadium. While trickling into the tournament without a big name, the SIUE Cougars play bigger than their prestige appeal. The Cougars are 10-4-5 this season and won the Missouri Valley Conference.
And although a Goliath-esque aura does not adorn the program, SIUE is appearing in its second NCAA Tournament in three years — good for the program's 12th Division I entry of all time. Collating the annals of college soccer, 1979 also marked a glorious year for the team, as it won the Division I national championship. In other words, SIUE has the recency edge on MSU by 11 years — the Spartans' most recent title coming in 1968.
The Cougars aren't understated, either.
"We're prepared. I have no doubts our guys will be ready for this, and I'm looking forward to a great game Thursday," SIUE head coach Mario Sanchez said in an article from SIUE athletics.
The resume says so, too. SIUE has played five opponents that qualified for the tournament. The Cougars' last loss came to tourney-bound Loyola, 1-0, on Sept. 24, and they exacted their revenge with a flipped scoreline on Oct. 29 at home.
Although not lacking in goal threats, the Cougars usually bite back on counter attacks. The SIUE defense is ranked 17th in goals-against average in the country and is anchored by three senior back-linesmen.
With the consistent contributions of senior defenders Austin Ledbetter —also the team's second-leading goalscorer — and Jason Hackett, the Missouri Valley Conference champions have pitched eight shutouts, a crucial tiebreaker for a team that only averaged 1.16 goals per games. The goalkeepers have a combined save percentage of .846, with junior Kyle Dal Santo starting 17 games.
The SIUE defense also stifled its tournament-qualifying opposition, suffocating the five teams to a meager three goals. Midfielders Carl Hinkson, Keegan McHugh, Greg Solawa and Mohamed Awad played in all 19 games but primarily made their impact felt on the defensive half. Combined, the four scored one goal.
The team's leading point-scorer, Devyn Jambga, has six goals on the season.
“We are certainly looking forward to hosting a very good SIU Edwardsville team," Rensing said in the release. "SIUE has not given up very many goals this year. They are a very good defensive team. The Big Ten has definitely done a great job preparing us along with our non-conference schedule.”
Because of SIUE's defensive mindset, MSU will have to be the aggressors in the game. If chances are rare or scarce for the Spartans, the Cougars will stand a better chance of outlasting MSU as the game progresses.
The collective creativity of awarded midfielders Ken Krolicki and Giuseppe Barone will be staged for scrutiny against arguably the best defense the Spartans have faced this year. Sophomore striker Ryan Sierakowski will also have to be efficient if he has a clear goal-scoring opportunity — those chances might not come around often.
MSU will likely own possession of this game no matter the outcome, but what will truly sway the final result is how MSU possesses the ball. If the Spartans are lethargic or uncommitted to the offensive front, the momentum could begin to swivel the way of the Cougars.
Yet, if MSU can strongly establish a presence upfield with a free and flowing style of play, this season says one goal will sneak through. And with two nationally acclaimed defenses, an early score might just do the trick.
Prediction: MSU 1, SIUE 0 (OT)