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Maryland women’s soccer vs. Michigan State preview

The Terps begin a two-game road trip to end the season.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland women’s soccer travels to East Lansing, Michigan, to face the Michigan State Spartans Thursday night.

“They've always been good in the goal,” Maryland head coach Ray Leone said of Michigan State. “It’s a good team.”

The Terps are coming off a 0-0 draw against the Indiana Hoosiers. In front of its biggest home crowd all season, Maryland played a phenomenal defensive game. It withstood 18 shots in 110 minutes without allowing a goal, thanks to the brilliant goalkeeping performance by Madeline Smith and Liz Brucia. However, Maryland only registered two shots on goal with both coming in the first half.

By only earning one point against Indiana and other Big Ten teams winning, the Terps were eliminated from Big Ten Tournament contention. Only the top eight teams in the conference qualify at the end of the regular season, and Maryland is nine points back of eighth-place with only two games to go.

Thursday’s match against the Spartans is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. and will air on Big Ten Network, marking the Terps’ first and only national television game this season.

Michigan State Spartans (9-3-3, 4-3-1 Big Ten)

Spring 2021 record: 1-10-1 (1-9-1 Big Ten)

Head coach Jeff Hosler is in his first year leading the Michigan State women’s soccer program, taking over for Tom Saxton after his 30-year stint. Before arriving in East Lansing, Hosler was the face of an incredibly successful Division II program at Grand Valley State. He led the Lakers to three national championships and five national championship games. During his seven years at the school, Hosler had the highest winning percentage of any coach in NCAA soccer.

Hosler has led quite the turnaround in just one season at Michigan State, winning nine games in 15 tries after the program only won one game all of last season. The Spartans are coming off a 1-0 loss at Rutgers last Sunday, but as Maryland and the rest of the Big Ten knows, the Scarlet Knights are a different animal. Michigan State is in fourth place with 13 points but is only one point up on the four teams tied for fifth-place. It has little margin of error heading into the final weekend of Big Ten play.

“They first had a good work ethic to begin with,” Leone said. “[Hosler’s] taken his brand of soccer where they’re possessing the ball and defending together and doing quite well.”

Players to know

Ava Cook, fifth year forward, No. 14 — Cook followed Hosler from Grand Valley State to Michigan State, and she has had absolutely zero problems making the jump from Division II to Big Ten soccer. Starting the first 14 games, Cook leads the Spartans with five goals and is tied for the team lead with two assists. In addition, Cook has fired off 63 shots, the most on the Spartans by a tremendous margin and the third-most in the Big Ten. For what it is worth, Cook was not in the lineup for the first time against Rutgers.

Lauren Kozal, redshirt junior goalkeeper, No. 00 — In her fourth year with the program, Kozal has turned into one of the best goalies in the Big Ten. Kozal has started every game since her 2019 redshirt freshman campaign and has certainly turned around this season. The Ada, Michigan, native has improved from allowing 1.85 goals-against average in the spring to 0.64 goals-against average now, the second-best mark in the conference. Kozal has also produced six clean sheets while leading the Big Ten with a 0.868 save percentage.

Zivana Labovic, sophomore defender, No. 20 — Coming off a freshman campaign in which she led the team with goals, Labovic has had a successful sophomore season thus far. A starter in all 15 games, Labovic has compiled four goals and nine assists, both of which rank second on the Spartans. If Cook cannot go, look for Labovic to be the main focus for the Terps’ defense.

Strength

Not allowing goals. Unfortunately for Maryland, this will be the second consecutive elite defense it faces. When it comes to the top scoring defenses in the Big Ten, Michigan State ranks right behind Indiana with only 0.67 goals allowed per game. Kozal’s resurgence this fall has made the Michigan State backline that much more terrifying with postseason play on the horizon. As of Oct. 19, Michigan State boasts the 23rd-best defense in the entire nation.

Weakness

Fouling. Michigan State has picked up 196 fouls this season, which is only six behind Iowa for the most in the conference. A flashback to Sept. 30’s contest against Iowa shows that the Terps were fouled 17 times and only one yellow card was handed to the Hawkeyes. Leone expressed his frustration after the game, comparing it to a “water polo game.” If this game is anything similar to that one, Maryland hopes that it will receive a more rewarding whistle. Regardless, the Spartans’ fouling could create a sloppy game.

Three things to watch

1. Can the Terps find some of their magic from almost two years ago to date? Oct. 24, 2019, was the day of Maryland’s last Big Ten victory. Ironically, it happened against Michigan State on the road, when the Terps won 1-0 with midfielder Loren Sefcik’s goal being the decider. Leone has repetitively mentioned that his team is not shying away from the drought, and a win would mean a ton to both him and his players.

“Relief, reward for sticking with it,” Leone said of emotions that would come from a victory. “They know they’re improving, but they don’t want to just improve. They want to win, and nobody’s hiding from that...we’re just constantly working on improving every part of the game because, as everybody has learned, you’ve got to do everything to win a game in the Big Ten, you can’t just do nine out of 10, you got to do all of them.”

2. Can Maryland build off a strong performance from last Sunday? Despite the draw, Leone mentioned how it was his team’s best game of the year. Defensively, the Terps were excellent against a team that earned its position in the upper third of the Big Ten standings. Offensively, however, Maryland needs to generate more opportunities and put more shots on goal.

“We defended so well together,” Leone said. “I think that was the most important thing that we shaped our pressure properly. When we went, we went in numbers and that was really, really good. I would like to see less fouls...and of course we want to score. So, we got to get back to being on frame and calm in front of the goal.”

3. How can Maryland’s offense get back on track? Though the Terps lost 5-2 to Rutgers last Thursday, it exploded for its highest offensive output in six weeks. Maryland’s offense struggled to start Big Ten play and reverted to those ways against an elite Indiana defense. Michigan State is sure to cause some problems on the defensive end, but Maryland feels it may be close to breaking through.

“Just get into that final piece and make the right pass with the proper, you know, weight and all that stuff we’re missing that final pass,” Leone said. “So that’s gonna be a key that, take a breath...we’re doing all the hard part and then that last little thing which is just like a 10-yard pass to the right person, we’re missing.”