Spartans can’t overcome slow start, fall to rival Michigan

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Micheal Pimlott/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

Adam Bakr, Men's Soccer Beat Reporter

ANN ARBOR – The Michigan State men’s soccer team wrapped up its three-game road trip with a 2-0 loss in Ann Arbor against their in-state rivals from the University of Michigan. It was a rough stretch for the Spartans, as losing the Big Bear Trophy comes after losses at Oakland and Northwestern. 

Michael Wetungu was out of this game with an injury, leading Michigan State to reform their back line. They switched to a back three of Patrick Nielsen, Nick Woodruff and Nick Stone, with Olu Ogunwale and Alex Shterenberg at wingback on either side of the three. It was one of the rare times Michigan State has lined up in a 3-5-2 formation this season. 

Damon Rensing/Photo: Jacob Herbert

“A little bit of playing it was what Michigan poses, and also we wanted to get two up front,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said. “And obviously the injury to Wetungu, if we had Nielsen and him back there, it’s a little different with two junior and senior big time centerbacks.” 

The big concerns for Michigan State coming into the game were their struggles defending set pieces and the form of Michigan’s Nebojsa Popovic, and the two came together for Michigan to take the lead from a corner 10 minutes in. Popovic got on the end of a Michigan corner and saw his deflected shot hit the back of the net to give the Wolverines the early 1-0 lead. 

Michigan would dominate for long stretches of the first half, and Popovic found his second goal in the 38th minute to make the score 2-0. Following a turnover in the midfield, Ybarra found Popovic in space down the middle who beat Hunter Morse from the edge of the box. The first half double gave him his ninth and 10th goals of the season. 

Hunter Morse/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

“I think those two mistakes cost us,” Rensing said. “I thought at times we did what we wanted to do, but we can’t have those mistakes and then chase the game.”

Mohammed Zakyi nearly added Michigan’s third goal before the break, but hit the post from close range after the corner fell to him. The Wolverines finished the half with two goals on eight shots, while the Spartans could only manage three shots that were all off target. 

The start of the second half looked to be a resurgence for Michigan State, as they saw their longest spell of possession. Conner George looked to have brought them back into the contest, but his deflected shot slowly went out off the post after it looked to have caught Finnerty in the Michigan net. 

Farai Mutatu/Photo: MSU Athletic Communications

“I thought in the second half we started very well, we hit the post when it was 2-0,” Rensing said. “The timing of goals is huge, had that go in at 2-1, I’ve been in this game enough to see the momentum change.” 

From there on out Michigan picked up its stride, and it took some saves from Morse to keep the game in range for Michigan State. First he had to come up big after Kevin Buca cut through the MSU defense. 

Just 10 minutes later he had to send Zakyi’s effort behind the post. The following corner nearly saw Michigan put the game to bed, but Harrison’s shot from the edge of the box went out off the woodwork. 

Michigan would control the rest of the match without too many chances of notice to hold on to the 2-0 rivalry win. From here both teams get ready for their final games of conference play, with Michigan State hosting Indiana and Michigan traveling to Maryland. Depending on the results, the teams could see a rematch in the first round of Big Ten Tournament play.

Contact Adam Bakr at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @AdamBakr14.