Following a two-game hiatus from conference play, the No. 7 Maryland men’s soccer team starts its final stretch of regular-season Big Ten games against Michigan State in East Lansing.
The Terps have won three straight following a tough road loss to Wisconsin. Since the scoreless outing, Maryland’s offense has begun to come alive to the tune of a 2.33 goals per game average.
Likewise, the defense has been a force, pitching two shutouts and aiming for a third straight versus the Spartans. With both sides clicking, Maryland seems well-equipped for the stretch run and this latest road test.
“We have three more games left and it’s all in our hands,” goalkeeper Niklas Neumann said. “We play three times in the Big Ten and if we win all three games we get some nice hardware. I think that’s something for me personally and I think I can speak on behalf of the team, that it’s very motivational.”
The game will start at 7 p.m. on Friday and will air on BTN Plus.
Michigan State Spartans (6-6-2, Big Ten 2-2-2)
2020-21 Record: 4-7 (4-6)
Head coach Damon Rensing stepped into big shoes upon his promotion in 2009, replacing the legendary Joe Baum as the leader of the Spartan program. Rensing has been with Michigan State since his playing years aside from one season coaching the women’s soccer team at UNLV. He joined the women’s program as an assistant following his graduation, then went to Vegas for a year before coming to the men’s side for ten seasons.
Since taking over, Michigan State has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, including a College Cup berth in 2018 which it lost to Akron, the eventual runner-ups to the Terps. The Spartans have been a bit befuddled since then, having endured an injury-riddled 2019 before the shortened spring season. They have been better this season, proving to be a tough out in conference play.
Players to know
Senior forward Farai Mutatu, 5-foot-9, No. 6 — What a season it has been for Mutatu. Leading the Big Ten in goals (6), shots (44), shots on goal (18) and points (15), the senior attacker has steadily improved from his All-Big Ten second team selection in the spring. Mutatu has converted in the clutch too, as half of his goals on the season have been game-winners, including a hat trick on the road in a 4-3 victory over Notre Dame.
Senior midfielder Jack Beck, 6-foot-0, No. 2— While the Spartans have the conference’s leader in goals, the team also boasts the top assister (7) in Beck. Named alongside Mutatu in the spring’s All-Big Ten second team, Beck has made strides as a key senior leader for this experienced Spartan team. He patrols the midfield well and has proven his status as one of the Big Ten’s most daunting players to game plan for.
Graduate student midfielder Michael Miller, 6-foot-1, No. 18 — Miller joins Beck in a strong and seasoned midfield for Rensing’s squad. He is one of five players, which includes Mutatu and Beck, to have played in every game this season. Miller has also been a steady force on the stat sheet, accumulating six points on two goals and two assists.
Experience. Michigan State has a long list of upperclassmen that have helped the Spartans overcome a difficult two years to get to the point they are at now. Mutatu, Beck and Miller aren’t alone, as its star goalkeeper Hunter Morse has been through the highs and lows of the past few seasons with Michigan State. Other consistent veterans include midfielder Louis Sala, defenders Will Perkins and Nick Stone, and forward Gianni Ferri.
Keeping opponents off the board. Despite having a veteran cornerstone in net in Morse, the Spartans have been the Big Ten’s worst defensive team this season, allowing 1.64 goals per game. The defense has managed just two shutouts on the year and that likely won’t improve to three against a Maryland offense that is finally starting to gain its footing in the consistency column.
Three things to watch
1. Offensive and defensive cohesion will be key. Maryland has shown bits and pieces of its offensive and defensive superiority throughout this season, but putting it together has been a struggle. Recently, the cohesiveness from both sides has started to show out, especially in the second half of the Pacific game.
“We’re a reasonably young team, specifically in the attack, and this takes a little time to get that quality going,” head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We showed a really good sign of it last game, but we’ll continue to work on it.
Defender Alex Nitzl added, “It’s encouraging that you can finally see that we start to work as one team. If we defend, we defend as a team. If we score goals, we create opportunities as a team.”
This stretch of Big Ten games to end the regular season will be a difficult stretch, but if the offense and defense can coexist and perform at the level that they have shown in the past, the Terrapins will be an even tougher out than they currently are.
2. How will Maryland fare on the road? It has been a small sample size, but the Terps have underperformed in its four true road matches this season. They’ve been able to salvage a 2-2 record, but those performances have been iffy. The most recent road match against the lowly Delaware Fighting Blue Hens had to go to extra time before a victor was determined. The last Big Ten road match was a lackluster 1-0 loss to Wisconsin, so this upcoming match in East Lansing presents a prime opportunity for the Terrapins to exact its demons.
“We don’t put too much pressure on ourselves,” Nitzl said. “We look from game to game, always the next game is the most important game. We feel prepared and now all focus is on Michigan State.”
3. What will the starting IX look like? We saw a very different starting lineup last week due to several key injuries to Maryland starters. The obvious missing piece was that of midfielder Malcolm Johnston, who had started every game up to that point. Starting more sparingly had been forward Justin Gielen, but he too was missing from the starting lineup and the game entirely. Lastly, defender Nick Richardson continues to be on the mend, but he was available for the Pacific game. The look of the active roster will be an interesting development come Friday.