Michigan State’s Women’s Soccer Team will kick off its pursuit of a second straight conference title Sunday as it gears up for its first matchup of Big Ten play, hosting the 4-2-1 Ohio State Buckeyes.
The Spartans are fresh off an eventful week, coming away with an impressive win in the final moments at NC State Thursday before struggling to execute defensively against Dayton on Sunday, drawing 2-2.
The Buckeyes, winners of their last three straight, enter Sunday’s matchup looking to knock off the reigning Big Ten champs. In his press conference Thursday, MSU Head Women’s Soccer Coach Jeff Hosler said Sunday’s contest is somewhere in the middle of just another match and a highly-anticipated start to conference play, given MSU’s success a year ago.
"I’d be naive to say that [the players] don’t recognize this as the first opportunity in Big Ten play,” Hosler said. “Coming off the season we had last year in Big Ten play, what allowed us to be successful was just focusing on each day at a time.”
Growing pains have been evident in MSU’s play thus far with the loss of the 2022 Big Ten Forward of the Year Lauren DeBeau and All-American goalkeeper Lauren Kozal, coupled with disappointing outcomes against Colorado and Dayton. Hosler said his team is still working out the kinks.
“We’re still searching our identity a little bit,” Hosler said. “Our principles of play are well-defined, but we’re still learning how to win together and how to come together in some tough moments.”
As reigning Big Ten Champions, the Spartans have a target on their back for the entirety of conference play. Hosler said his team feels like “the hunted” in every match.
“I think we’re getting everyone’s best shot,” Hosler said. “Quite a few instances this year, it’s probably been our opponent's best efforts on the year, but that’s what we come to expect. If we still execute, we’re still gonna be in good situations.”
Hosler said the focal point of this week’s practice has been proficiency in the box with an emphasis on taking the proper angles to finish on the offensive end.
One of the Spartans’ bright spots thus far has been freshman Bella Najera, who has scored three goals in the team’s past four matches.
Hosler said Najera is in “incredible form” for a freshman despite playing a different position than she was accustomed to in her youth.
“If you took just this past week’s performance, she’s probably our best player,” Hosler said.
On the defensive side of the field, Hosler said he’s looking for more sound execution, especially in pressure-packed situations. The team’s last shutout was against Eastern Michigan on Aug. 31.
“We’re conceding too many goals altogether,” Hosler said. “The quality of goal we’re conceding probably isn’t the highest.”
Depth has been a key factor in the Spartans’ back line this season. Through eight matches, MSU’s lineup has featured seven different players at center back. Nonetheless, Hosler had high praise for his defensive unit amid several transitions in personnel due to transfers, injuries and position changes.
“Back-line depth was a concern coming into this season just with the roster that we have,” Hosler said. “The group that’s played it has given us everything they have. The key part is having them available.”
The Spartans and Buckeyes will face off starting at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 14 at DeMartin Stadium.