A few weeks removed from the end of the men’s soccer season, it is only natural that a little nostalgia creeps through the cracks of the shut door. For the Spartans, it was a very successful season, reaching their second Elite Eight in two years, although they were undoubtedly crushed not to progress further in the College Cup. Throughout the season, they endured many evenly-contested games and individual players received the accolades that they deserved, on the field and off.
Now, let’s attempt to relive the season briefly.
The Spartans lost their first exhibition against the Washington Huskies, a rocky start to a season where much was expected. In a tight game held in Indiana, Washington was simply able to outlast MSU, scoring early and holding on for the victory. The story of the game was antithetical to the second encounter later in the season.
In the first official game of 2014, the Spartans beat SMU, 1-0, in a scrappy affair where neither team had many clear-cut chances. It was an impressive win against a formidable opponent, and the center back pairing of Ryan Keener and Zach Carroll looked to be in midseason form.
One of the biggest tests for the Spartans throughout the season was their Big Ten opener, on the road at Maryland. The game was televised, as was the talent that was on display. Possession switched from end to end, but the Spartans went ahead early, on Jason Stacy’s first career goal. Maryland would never respond. Thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Zach Bennett and Carroll, Michigan State calmed Maryland’s crowd of over 6,000.
In other Big Ten games, Michigan State lost to Ohio State and Michigan (relinquishing the Big Bear Trophy), drew with Rutgers and Northwestern and beat Penn State and Indiana away. Michigan State finished 4-2-2 in conference.
A big confidence boost for Sparty came five days before the Michigan rivalry game. They traveled away to Notre Dame, the defending champs, and were able to earn themselves a 1-1 draw. Senior Tim Kreutz scored in the heated affair, and he was one of many players who thought that they played well enough to win the game outright and was disappointed at the result.
The Big Ten Tournament saw the Spartans outlast Penn State 1-0, but then lose to Maryland, the defense holding stout throughout to take the game to PK’s. Maryland walked off victorious, winning the penalty shootout 3-2. At the end of the day, it would not matter too much, as the Spartans earned themselves the third seed in the College Cup, and thus homefield advantage until the Final Four (played on a neutral site).
The first game was against in-state rivals Oakland, who played just down the road. The Spartans knew the Gold and Black well, having lost 2-0 to the Golden Grizzlies earlier in the year.
Home-field advantage proved to provide the game-changing element however, and the Spartans won the game 1-0, behind a Carroll header. He appeared to appreciate the home support, as his celebratory route led him straight into the arms of several Red Cedar Rowdies.
Next up, Michigan State faced Washington, another team they had lost to earlier in the year, even if it only was an exhibition. The Huskies scored two second-half goals that seemed to put the game beyond reach, as they led 2-0 with little time left to go. In a game where the Spartans had not scored in 73 minutes, they would suddenly have to conjure up not one, but two pieces of magic to earn themselves an overtime.
The Spartans lived up to their name, fighting tooth and nail to the final whistle. The two goals they scored came in the 76th and 88th minute. The goal in the 88th belonged to Kreutz, who scored his fifth of the season. The game went first into a fruitless overtime before digressing to the capricious game of penalty kicks.
This was not the Spartans’ first endeavor into penalty kicks this year, and their experience shined. With the game on the line, Fatai Alashe converted for the Spartans to go up 4-3 and then stepped aside to let Bennett do his work between the posts. The junior keeper showed why he is regarded as one of the nation’s best, and sent the Spartans to their second consecutive Elite Eight.
To make the Final Four, the Spartans would have to overcome the size and skill of Providence. It proved tough for them. When MSU went up 1-0 off an Adam Montague header, it seemed to be business as usual. However, the Friars were able to withstand the heat and scored three unanswered goals. Just as the game moved toward irreconcilable territory, Jay Chapman, the MAC Hermann semifinalist, did what he did all year: made a play. He scored to draw the Spartans closer.
State came close on many other occasions, the closest being a curling Alashe left-footer from 12 yards out. It was beautifully placed, but the Providence keeper showed amazing reactions and tipped the ball over the bar to keep his team ahead. The game finished 3-2 and the Spartans’ Final Four dreams vanished.
The team was understandably devastated, but the season was in no way a failure. After the year, the national recognition that many players received showed that the year was far from all for naught.
Chapman finished as a MAC Hermann semifinalist, and drew the attention of many professional teams. Chapman was also a First Team All-American and the Big Ten midfielder of the year, making the first team for the Big Ten team of the year.
Alashe ended the season, his last, with All-American honors as well, qualifying for the second squad. Both players were added first team selections to the All-Region squad.
Montague and Keener were All-Big Ten Second Team honorees, while Ken Krolicki and Brad Centala won their spots as All-Freshman Big Ten members. Montague joined Carroll as members of the All-Region squad, as second team selections.
Perhaps the greatest success occurred off the field. Coach Damon Rensing has always prized academics above all else, and was ebullient to hear that two players finished on the Academic All-Big Ten team. Freshman Brian Winterfield finished with a 4.0 GPA while senior Ryan Keener earned a degree in kinesiology and had a cumulative GPA of 3.94, netting his spot on the national All-Academic First Team as well. Keener will be attending dentistry school in the fall.
The Spartans will be hoping to replicate the success of this season next year, although that is no easy task. Eight seniors are set to graduate, including Keener, Kreutz, Montague and Alashe.
All in all, the year was something the team can be proud of and look up to. Several players garnished their resumes and have had professional teams taking looks. Alashe was drafted No. 4 overall by the San Jose Earthquakes in the MLS SuperDraft, Montague went 58th to the Vancouver Whitecaps and Chapman signed with Toronto FC.
Although the Spartans were unable to eclipse the Elite Eight, they once again had a season most teams aspire for. Rensing and his teams will seek to replicate that success in the next few years.
Isaac Constans is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports
Photo: Jonathan Yales/Impact Sports