EAST LANSING, Mich. – A postseason run 50 years in the making has Michigan State playing in Santa Barbara, California for a chance at a national championship. After dismantling the James Madison backline during the second half of a 2-1 comeback victory in the Elite Eight, the Spartans will now face a familiar foe in the national semifinals, looking to reverse the result from earlier in the season. The Zips handed the Spartans their second loss of the season on Oct. 9.
“Right now all our focus is on preparing for a very good Akron team,” MSU coach Damon Rensing said. “They were in the final four last year so back to back final fours. Very well coached, Jared Embick does a great job and they’ve obviously got some very good players.”
But before preparing for the Zips, the Spartans garnered a bit of local fame, stepping into the spotlight all around East Lansing. During their Friday night pre-game meal prior to JMU, the Spartans were given a standing ovation from the crowd at Pizza House. On Monday the team was brought to midcourt during an MSU men’s basketball game, again receiving a standing ovation from all in attendance, although this time the audience was much bigger.
“Being introduced and just the ovation we received was pretty special,” senior defender John Freitag said. “You don’t really realize how many people are behind you until you get into moments like that.”
A group that goes through many of these moments together naturally grows a bond, but this team’s connection seems to be more tightly knit than expected.
“It’s really important because you’re going to have adversity or momentum shifts in games,” Rensing said. “It’s the fact that those guys are close and they’re willing to do things for the team and not necessarily themselves is really important and that’s how you get through those tough moments in games, you play for each other.”
While this MSU team is on quite the hot streak, knocking of the No. 4 and No.13 seeds en route to the College Cup, Akron is just as hot, if not hotter. The Zips are riding an eight game win streak, including toppling No. 1 Wake Forest, No. 9 Stanford, and No. 16 Syracuse all during the NCAA tournament.
Any team that has made it to this point in the season must have a strong team all-around, though there are three players in particular that stand out on Akron’s team sheet.
David Egbo, the sophomore striker from Nigeria, leads the Zips on the scoresheet this year, putting the ball past the keeper 12 times while earning five assists. Despite playing just 20 minutes against the Spartans in the previous matchup, he was able to get onto the scoresheet, netting the game winner.
Egbo is complimented in the Zips attack by Marcel Zajac, the junior out of Mississauga, Ontario. The midfield maestro has 10 goals and eight assists on the season and is undoubtedly built for the big time. Five of those goals have come in the four NCAA tournament games, and Zajac was brilliant against Stanford. He tallied two of the three Akron goals to go along with an assist in the third, imposing his will on the Cardinal and almost single-handedly willing his side into the College Cup.
As potent as they are up front, the towering 6-foot-6 German goalkeeper Ben Lundt is an intimidating sight for any opposing striker. The native of Berlin has managed seven clean sheets between the sticks, with the most impressive performance coming in a 1-0 win against an offensive powerhouse in Wake Forest.
Looking to the Spartans, striker Ryan Sierakowski has found his scoring touch again, putting up both of his team’s goals against James Madison.
“I think when we played them it was in the thick of our season and we were dealing with a couple injuries,” Sierakowski said. “Having everyone fresh and ready to go is going to definitely change how this game plays out. We know what they’re all about, we know we can compete with them.”
Michigan State may be forced to endure another key injury for their second round with the Zips, as center back Michael Wetungu went down late in the second half on Saturday with an apparent injury. His status in unknown. Freitag filled Wetungu’s role in the waning minutes of the game.
No matter how the lineup looks against Akron, their clinical attack is something MSU will have to deal with all night.
“They’re a very good attacking team and they move the ball very well,” Freitag said. “We saw that in our last game (against them) and we’ve seen that in their games throughout the tournament. But I think we’ve got one of the best back lines in the country so we’re up for the task.”
Everyone can be sure that both coaches will indeed have their respective squads ready for the task at hand come game time.
Kickoff is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Friday night from Harder Stadium in Santa Barbara California. Both College Cup semifinals, along with the final, will be televised on ESPNU.