Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Men's soccer kickstarts season against Rutgers at Schoolcraft College

February 19, 2021
<p>Then-junior midfielder Giuseppe Barone (10) runs with Rutgers forward Brian Hawkins (10) during the game against Rutgers on Sept. 21, 2018. The Spartans defeated the Scarlet Knights, 2-1.</p>

Then-junior midfielder Giuseppe Barone (10) runs with Rutgers forward Brian Hawkins (10) during the game against Rutgers on Sept. 21, 2018. The Spartans defeated the Scarlet Knights, 2-1.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Excitement for the season built for coach Damon Rensing and MSU men's soccer as they realized it was going to happen.

Their season will begin against Rutgers at 1 p.m. on Friday at Schoolcraft College.

"I think the guys are really excited, probably pushing close to 15 or 16 months since their last competitive match," Rensing told media Thursday. "We're really thankful to have this opportunity to compete. ... Our guys have been working really hard. It's been really good, and I think they're excited to see where we're at and where we can get better."

They won't get to open their year at DeMartin Stadium and not even at another Division I school's field, but it's something.

Coming off an injury-plagued 2019 season, where MSU finished 3-12-3 and only scored 13 goals, MSU was selected to finish fifth in this season's preseason Big Ten poll, behind Indiana, Maryland, Penn State and Michigan.

Despite a poor record last year, MSU has finished in the top five in the Big Ten standings in seven of the past nine seasons. MSU also made a run to the Men's Soccer College Cup during the 2018 season before losing to Akron in the College Cup semifinals.

Friday marks the beginning of the fourth consecutive season MSU opens their schedule against Rutgers. MSU has won the three previous season openers and looks to add another in that column Friday.

MSU will be transitioning for Friday's game from the outdoor DeMartin Stadium to Schoolcraft College and its indoor field given the circumstances of the winter weather.

The team has a shorter schedule than they're used to, with only 10 games slated against other Big Ten schools — five road, five home.

They are following typical COVID protocols, getting tested six out of the seven days of the week, Rensing said.

"It's not foolproof, as you've seen in other sports, but I do think it keeps the guys a little bit aware," he said. "There's certainly adjustments ... and there's certainly anxieties within the players because if they get it, they're out 17 days, which is four games out of 10. ... The positives outweigh the negatives. ... Their other option is to be at home, taking an online class and maybe not being able to compete, but I think ... this is good and healthy for them."

Rensing said it's hard for his staff, at times, because it's trying to prevent the unprecedented. They can't be in front of the team 24/7, so they hope that the messages they've been getting over this past year have sunk in.

For the Spartans, senior midfielder Michael Miller, junior midfielder Jack Beck and junior forward Farai Mutatu were all named Big Ten Players to Watch.

"A lot of unknowns for us in seeing Rutgers, but I do know they usually play a pretty good brand, good style, and it'll be a very tough match based on unknowns," Rensing said.

Last season, Miller was first on the team with seven points in 2019. Mutatu was second in scoring with two goals and two assists for a total of six points. The pair were two of seven Spartans to play in every 2019 campaign game while Beck was an anchor and played in 17 games.

Looking at the opponent, who is coming off of a back-and-forth 7-8-3 record during the 2019 season, the Scarlet Knights will have to find consistency if they want to improve last season's record.

Head Coach Jim McElderry, who is only in his second year at the helm of the Scarlet Knights, has named Pablo Ávila and Vincent Borden as captains of the 2021 spring squad.

In addition, the conference announced Ávila, Hugo Le Guennec and Jackson Temple as players to watch.

Ávila is a junior from Terrassa, Spain, and is returning as the team's leading point scorer with six goals and two assists, earning a nod to the All-Big Ten Second Team. Borden is a senior from Ithaca, New York, leading a defensive unit that posted four shutouts last season.

"I've always liked playing against teams we've lost to previously because it gives us a little more motivation," Rensing said. He has no expectations for how the afternoon will go.

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