Michigan State has made the Elite Eight again, for the second time in the past two years. However, you will not hear anybody on the soccer team bragging about that; they want more.
Preparing to face the Providence Friars with a chance to drive down to the college soccer Final Four (or the College Cup), the Spartans soccer team will be looking to defend their home field as well as they have defended their goal this season. With a trip to Cary, North Carolina on the line and guaranteed national ESPN coverage, this is State’s biggest game of the year.
The Michigan State defense is up against an attack that has put away 39 chances this year, 10 more than State. Of course, the Spartans are a defensive-minded team led by Zach Bennett in goal, who allows just .69 goals per game and boasts a save percentage of 83%.
Bennett has not been the only reason for all the shutouts (13 in 22 games), as the men ahead of him have been equally as impressive. Zach Carroll, Ryan Keener and Fatai Alashe are all big reasons for the defensive success that MSU fans have become accustomed to. Combined, they have only missed one game this whole season.
Freshman Brad Centala has seen more playing time at left back recently, and has impressed. He is physically imposing, but it does not impair his pace whatsoever. He gels with the team flawlessly.
The Friars will try to overcome this with their three man attack. Fabio Machado will be the man in attack looking to provide service to the other two, as he has a team-high seven assists thus far. A hint for the Spartans, however, do not let him shoot. Before playing for Providence, he set records left and right with his goalscoring touch, and this year has a respectable five goals.
His partners in crime are the lethal combination of Markus Naglestad and Mac Steeves, who have scored 16 goals together this year (10 to Naglestad), with each contributing two assists to the attacking cause as well. Naglestad is a pure finisher, but the Spartans have not faced someone as skilled and massive as Steeves (6-foot-3, 200 lbs), who, scarily, is only a sophomore and has room to grow, physically and skillfully. The Providence strikers will be battling all day with the Spartans stingy, tenacious defense.
“Providence, they’re an all-around great program,” Bennett said. “They’re a good team, solid on the counter attack- one of their strengths. So you have to look to slow them down on the counter, try not to turn the ball over in the middle of the park, try to keep the turnovers to a minimum on our half of the field. So you know, you just take those little tidbits and try to play our game… We pride ourselves on good defense.”
The Spartans will be hoping to get a goal, one way or another, and close down shop. One way to score might be on the quick counter if the Spartans can withstand an attack and outlet the ball to Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, Jay Chapman, or get it out wide to Jason Stacy.
Providence is strong in defense, led by goalkeeper Keasel Broome, who has played every minute this season. However, they are not Spartan strong and if MSU’s defense holds up, State will like its chances.
Adam Montague is one man who will be looking to score the goal that will send the Spartans into the College Cup. However, he has been willing to sacrifice for the team, trading goals for hold up play and defense.
“You know, at this time of the year it’s really about holding back more, playing defensively,” Montague said. “I’d say even during last year’s tournament run, when we were playing well defensively, that’s when we seemed to be at our best. You know, finding ways to win games, whether it’s one shot or 15 shots, that’s what it comes down to this time of year.”
Defense will be the preaching point for coach Damon Rensing ahead of the Spartans’ Saturday showdown. He was the same coach who beat Providence two years ago in Rhode Island, and will be looking to achieve the same result this weekend. He believes the Michigan State soccer ascendancy has been coming for a while and this could be the year. The “why not us” mindset is sinking in for Michigan State, who saw rivals Indiana and Notre Dame win the last two titles.
Of course, what has to happen first is a win on Saturday for the Spartans. Although the Spartans have already played in seven Elite Eights, a win would mean their first College Cup appearance since 1968, when they split the national title. Michigan State will depend on its thus-far impenetrable defense.
The Spartans have been getting goals from set pieces all year, and will depend on a set piece goal or an inviting counter to score, as when the Spartans get possession, they will hold on to the ball unless a great opportunity presents itself.
MSU can taste the College Cup, but it’s been in this situation so many times before. This time, the Spartans, with their highest seed ever, think their experience will propel them past the round that has been so nettlesome for them.
Isaac Constans is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.
Photo: Hannah McEnroe/Impact Sports