EAST LANSING, Mich — It was the same story for Michigan State, but this chapter featured a completely different ending. In four of six seasons the Spartans had made it to the Elite Eight, but the barrier to the College Cup remained strong.
Through an intense effort, that barrier was toppled, as MSU defeated James Madison 2-1 in front of a large and raucous crowd at DeMartin Stadium Saturday night.
“It took everything we possibly had to win this game,” MSU coach Damon Rensing said following the game.
The Dukes (15-5-3) were dealt a serious blow weeks prior to the contest, when leading scorer Manuel Ferriol (9 goals) was suspended for two games, including Saturday’s game, due to a red card received in a win over North Carolina. It was his second red card of the season.
Analysts across the board predicted a gritty, defensive battle between JMU and MSU headed into the matchup. This was validated by the Dukes’ No. 3 ranked team goals against average, at 0.48 goals per game, and the Spartans’ stellar goalkeeper Jimmy Hague, who only surrenders 0.64 goals per game.
Early play strongly indicated that this contest would live up to its billing. Despite no scoring, there was no shortage of chances for either squad. Hague’s skills were put on display early, when he moved up in the box to deflect a shot and make a crucial save on Billy Metzler just 11:15 into play. Metzler had another good chance off a corner kick just seconds later, but his shot sailed wide.
MSU generated a quality chance at 17:06 courtesy of DeJuan Jones, who eluded a defender just left of the net to get in all alone, but JMU keeper TJ Bush quickly recovered and jumped on the ball.
Both teams settled in for a short time, but this ended abruptly when a deflected ball rolled just outside the MSU box and right to Niclas Mohr, who put it past Hague at 31:39 to give JMU a 1-0 lead. The Spartans staged a late flurry but couldn’t put one past Bush, carrying the one goal deficit into that half.
“I like the way it started, I thought we created good chances,” Rensing said. “We knew that James Madison was lethal on the counter, and they countered very well and got a goal. But I thought our guys showed great resilience.”
The misty rain that filled the air picked up as play was set to resume. Following suit, the intensity of play ramped up too. MSU went on the attack early in the half, producing chances through increased physicality. Jones yet again nearly scored, this time off a corner kick when his header sailed just high over the crossbar.
Minutes continued to tick off the clock, more Spartan chances ensued and the game settled into a lull similar to the feeling of the final few regular season games. When it seemed like the home team couldn’t buy a goal, postseason standout Ryan Sierakowski broke the ice in a big way with a flick-in goal off a Farai Mutatu run at 71:09.
“We were building up from the back and I ended up on the wing,” Sierakowski said. “There was a little bit of combination play and (John) Freitag was central so I interchanged with him. I just continued by run in the box and I was in the right place at the right time.”
With the match now all square, the Spartans kept their foot on the gas, in hot pursuit of that elusive College Cup berth. Their continued pressure came to fruition once again, as Sierakowski tallied another flick-in score following a Connor Corrigan run, giving MSU a 2-1 lead.
“I was pushing the line and I saw Connor (Corrigan) streaming down the left,” Sierakowski said. “Whoever was in the midfield clipped a great ball through, Connor took it down and I knew he would serve it. I made a run in front of that defender and slotted it away.”
DeMartin Stadium exploded with joy as Sierakowski joined his teammates in celebration. The only thing that separated the Spartans and the Final Four was 9:40 of soccer remaining.
“We talked about being patient, we had 45 minutes to score,” Rensing said. “We thought if we got one, the second would come. We had two great plays.”
As anticipation built, Hague came up with a final few stops and the horn blew, sending Michigan State to its first College Cup since 1968. Players streamed onto the field in joy. The hump that eluded the Spartans for so many years was now defeated.
“As coaches, we kind of do the same thing every year,” Rensing said when asked what the difference was for this year’s team. “We facilitate and run the same training sessions, it’s the players that make the end result. It’s the players that determine what their season’s going to be like.”
Sierakowski’s first goal was assisted on by Mutatu and Robbie Cort, his second by Patrick Nielson and Corrigan. The two scores marked his seventh and eighth goals of the season, and second and third of the postseason.
The Spartans now improve to 14-4-4 with the victory. They will move on to face the Akron Zips Dec. 7 in the NCAA tournament semifinals in Santa Barbara, Calif. MSU owns one previous matchup with the Zips, a 2-1 defeat on Oct. 9 at DeMartin. Fellow Big Ten foes Maryland and Indiana have already punched their tickets to the College Cup, which Rensing was quick to note.
“What a team effort, I’m proud of the boys,” Rensing said. “We’re excited to be the third team to represent the Big Ten in the College Cup.”