EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State football may be playing in the Big Ten Championship on Saturday and MSU volleyball may have just begun their NCAA tournament run, but MSU men’s soccer is well on its way to history with a chance to become one of the best men’s teams in the program’s 57-year history.
“This is certainly one of the better teams we’ve had in the modern era,” head coach Damon Rensing said. “The 2008 and 2010 teams were good. Sometimes you just need to win an extra game or two. The 2010 team was three seconds away from being right in this spot. It’s a very, very good team, and we’re very proud of the team. I don’t know where it would rank, but they’d be up there.”
The Michigan State men’s soccer program is headed into its first Elite Eight match in 45 years as Saturday’s match adds to the list of recent Michigan State athletic teams that have decorated the university’s athletic program this fall.
After the No. 11 Spartans defeated the sixth-seeded Georgetown Hoyas in Washington D.C. last Sunday, Michigan State earned a ticket to South Bend, Ind. for a 7:00 p.m. date with the third-seeded Fighting Irish.
“We’ve realized that we can beat anybody,” senior captain Kevin Cope said. “When it comes down to this late in the season, the mindset and mentality that you have going into the game believing that you’re going to win is huge. After a big win like (Georgetown), which was a big win for the team and for the program, it just shows we can win any game. To have that expectation and to have that belief that we are going to win is huge. We’ll use that come Saturday.”
The Spartans are quite familiar with the Fighting Irish as the two teams have clashed at least once in their last 11 seasons. Last season, Michigan State played Notre Dame twice, once in the regular season that the Irish won 2-0, and once in the round of 16 during the NCAA Tournament that the Irish won 3-0.
This season, the Spartans and Irish clashed again in a match that only took place nearly a month ago in East Lansing. The Irish once again came out on top 2-0, improving their record against Michigan State to 4-0 over the last three seasons.
“The score line looked like they beat us pretty badly, but if you (were) actually watching the game, I thought we both had very good chances, I thought we both possessed the ball very well, and I think all in all it was a great soccer match and it was just a letdown for five minutes and that could be the difference this Saturday,” MSU goalkeeper Zach Bennett said. “It’s a 90 minute game and we gotta play the full 90 minutes.”
Notre Dame forward Harrison Shipp scored the game winner against the Spartans back in November and he will be the primary focus of the entire MSU team come Saturday night.
“For my money, he’s the best player in the country this year,” Rensing said. “I think we’ll have to be aware of in transition, when we lose the ball, just knowing where he is, identifying quickly where he is, and just not let him get into a huge rhythm. He’s going to get a couple looks that all good players do. He’s going to get a couple things, but we can limit him as much as we can by early transition and identification.”
Shipp, a semifinalist for the Hermann Trophy, which is awarded to the national player of the year, draws attention from nearly every Spartan player.
“(Shipp) is a guy you always have to be aware of,” junior defender Ryan Keener said. “If the ball goes wide he’s always scheming trying to get on the end of it. (We’re) always talking him out and making his job as difficult as we can. He’s a great player and he’s going to make his plays, that’s going to happen, but if you can just limit those plays and make it as hard as you can for him then that’s our goal, (to) just to make things difficult for him.”
The MSU defense should be a key to slowing down one of the highest-scoring forwards in the country in Shipp. With the expected return of junior defender Ryan Keener, who has sat out the last two games to nurse a pulled hamstring, the defense will be back to its usual starters that have recorded the second-most shutouts (13) in the country along with Zach Bennett in goal.
“I think our guys are hungry,” Rensing said. “They always want to earn respect and they’ve been out to do that. This is another chance for them to earn respect. You go on the blogs and everybody has Notre Dame in the Final Four. Everybody had Georgetown beating us 2-0. They had Louisville upsetting us and these guys just go out and do their business. They’re hungry to get a win back because some of these guys haven’t had the chance to beat Notre Dame and some had the chance, but haven’t been able to do it and I’ll think they’ll be ready to go. There is definitely a hunger.”
Saturday night’s match kicks off at 7:00 p.m. and can be viewed live at no cost.
-Notre Dame has never reached the Final Four in their program’s 36-year history
Jonathan Yales is the host of Corner Kick for Impact Sports.
Photo: David Defever