With the regular season done and Big Ten Tournament set to begin, it’s time for the Michigan State men’s soccer team to turn its focus on a rematch with its in-state rivals from Ann Arbor.
After the Spartans fell to Indiana at DeMartin Stadium and the Wolverines left College Park with an impressive 4-2 win, the teams settled in at sixth and third respectively, setting up the opening-round clash. It’s just under two weeks since the teams last met at the Michigan Soccer Stadium, when Michigan took home a 2-0 win.
“We saw them last week so we know what they’re about,“ head coach Damon Rensing said. “The game’s fresh in their minds when we talk about what we did well and what we need to improve.”
Michigan State was in contention for a home opener, but a rough patch of form to end the season saw the team fall to sixth. Despite that, the signs are brighter than their form would suggest.
Since senior center back Michael Wetungu went out in the Northwestern game, the team has switched to the new 3-5-2 / 5-3-2 formation, and naturally a switch like that so late into the season will take time.
We’ve seen the team grow into it quickly however, and it seemed like they got more comfortable with it in every half that followed over the Michigan and Indiana games.
The real bright spot was the Indiana game. After falling behind to a Jack Maher penalty, we saw the team respond to a deficit better than they have throughout most of the season and they probably felt hard done by to not have found the back of the net in that contest.
The three centerback system is also coming along nicely, and it didn’t give up many chances to the talented Hoosier front line.
“We’re not far off, the guys know that and they believe it,” Rensing said. “We’ve played some good teams and been right there.”
It almost seemed as if the end of the regular season was more of a preseason for the tournament, but now it is do or die for Michigan State. The team’s chance at an NCAA tournament bid rides on the automatic entry from winning the Big Ten Tournament.
While Michigan State comes into this game struggling, Michigan is flying high. The team is undefeated in their last four games, winning three and scoring eight goals in the process with multiple scorers getting in on the act.
Nebojsa Popovic has been the main threat for Michigan this season, with three goals in the last four and 10 on the season, including the double against Michigan State last time around.
The Maryland game also saw the rest of the front line flourish, with Jack Hallahan scoring two goals and being involved in two more as Mohammed Zayki and Derick Broche found themselves on the scoresheet. And while the team has 28 goals on the season, the opposite side of the field may be even more impressive.
“I think what’s underrated is they don’t give up goals, everyone talks about their scoring, but Chaka’s done a good job of not giving them up.” Rensing said.
The praise isn’t without reason, as Michigan has just given up 14 goals in 17 games, and only five in eight conference games. Michigan State saw the strength of the Wolverine defense first hand, finishing the game without a shot on target.
The first game and the fixtures sense all point to Michigan winning, but this Michigan State team isn’t foreign to a postseason upset, and might go into Ann Arbor with a point to prove this time around.
The Spartans will face of with Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Sunday, Nov. 10 at 4 p.m.
Adam Bakr is one of Impact’s lead soccer reporters and a co-host of the Impact89FM soccer podcast: The DeMartin Download.