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Maryland men’s soccer vs Michigan State preview

The Terps are riding a two-game winning streak heading into their third home match of the season.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland men’s soccer (2-3) is in search of its third straight win as it heads back to College Park to take on Michigan State Friday as the second half of the regular season gets underway.

“Excited to play... we just want to play games and we have that opportunity now coming off of two good wins,” Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski said. “The guys want to play and we’re excited.”

The Terps nabbed two victories in a row after defeating last-place Wisconsin and then outlasting Michigan in a massive 2-1 road win last Thursday. Against the Wolverines, a duo of redshirt senior forwards collected the goals for Maryland in Mike Heitzmann and captain Paul Bin. The victory also marked Cirovski’s 400th win in the Maryland men’s soccer program.

With six points under their belt in the last two outings, the Terps are still only ahead of Michigan State and Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings. However, Maryland has conceded just one goal in its last two matches, a sign that the team is trending in the right direction.

“It has been more connected in defense, a lot more talk has been going on,” sophomore defender Chris Rindov said. “We’ve also had a little bit more energy I’d say back there once we got that first win at Wisconsin.”

After the match against Michigan State, Maryland will play two of its next three matches at Ludwig Field. The Terps will stay home to face Rutgers on March 23, then travel to Northwestern on March 27, before heading back home to take on Penn State on March 31.

Friday’s matchup with Michigan State begins at 2 p.m. Let’s take a look at what Maryland is up against in its sixth match of the season.

Michigan State Spartans (2-4)

2019 record: 3-12-3 (3-4-1 Big Ten)

Head coach Damon Rensing is officially in his 12th season as the head coach of the Spartans’ men’s soccer program. Michigan State and Rensing had a few solid seasons before falling off in 2019. In 2017, Rensing led the Spartans to an Elite Eight with a 13-3-4 overall record. 2018 saw Michigan State with a 14-5-4 record and a College Cup appearance. Then in 2019, after a couple of key departures, Rensing and the Spartans fell to a 3-12-3 record.

Entering the 2021 season, Rensing had a very strong overall record, however, with a 120-78-33 record (.591). The Spartans currently sit towards the bottom of the Big Ten with two wins in six matches.

“Every Big Ten game is a bloodbath, you know, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing,” redshirt senior Mike Heitzmann said. “We got to just keep working and we’re expecting their best, they’re gonna expect our best so just got to work hard just like the last two games.”

Players to know

Junior forward Farai Mutatu (No. 9) — If there’s anything that you need to know about Michigan State’s offense, it’s that Mutatu will fire off shots from just about anywhere. The 5-foot-7, 165 pound forward doesn’t have a lot of size, but he makes up for that with his willingness to get the ball to the net.

Mutatu already has 13 shot attempts and five shots on goal through six matches, which is easily the highest mark on the team. He has one goal this season and will certainly be taking as many shots as possible against Maryland. Mutatu also finished with 48 shot attempts in the 2019 season as a sophomore, which was the fifth-highest mark in the Big Ten.

Sophomore defenseman Nick Stone (No. 12) — Stone is a stalwart on the Michigan State backline and will guide the Spartans’ defensive scheme to thwart the Terps’ attack come Friday. The defenseman has played in 90 minutes in all but one game this season. Stone tallied an assist against Northwestern on March 11 and has also added in two shot attempts this season for the Spartans. Even though he’s just a sophomore, Stone gets a lot of minutes on the pitch and will be tasked with halting Maryland’s forwards.

Junior midfielder Jack Beck (No. 2) — Beck is another offensive weapon for this Michigan State team. The junior has started in all six matches this season for Rensing’s squad and has totaled one goal and two shots on goal. He has tallied six shot attempts this season, which ranks as the second-highest mark on the team behind Mutatu. Beck has played at least 70 minutes in every match this season, therefore he will likely be on the field early and often against the Terps.

Strength

Defense. Despite just two wins in six matches, the Spartans have played fairly solid defense this season against their opponents. Michigan State has conceded just over one goal per game this season, but has allowed a total of just 17 shots on target. The seven goals on 17 shots on target seems a little excessive and may point more towards poor goalie play. This Spartans defense shouldn’t be underestimated.

Weakness

Scoring. Michigan State has struggled out of the gates this season primarily due to its weak attacking play. Through six matches, the Spartans have collected a total of just four goals. No individual player on the Michigan State roster has more than one goal scored. The Spartans average just 0.67 goals per game, which is not too solid of a mark considering they attempt 9.0 shots per game.

Three things to watch

1. Can Maryland’s veteran forwards get the job done again? Against Michigan in its last time out, Maryland saw its two redshirt senior forwards, Heitzmann and Bin, collect the goals in what was a crucial win for Cirovski’s side.

“That was great to have both Mike (Heitzmann) and Paul (Bin) score, you know, very significant game at Michigan, you need your seniors to step up and they did,” Cirovski said.

The Terps will need their more experienced players to carry the load as Maryland looks to turn its season around after an 0-3 start to the 2021 campaign. Look for players like Bin, Heitzmann and other upperclassmen such as juniors Brayan Padilla and Justin Gielen to contribute more on the pitch come Friday.

2. Will Maryland keep winning with sophomore goalie Niklas Neumann in net? Neumann hasn't had a ton of work in goal of the Terps after two starts, but his presence is certainly giving Maryland a boost as it looks to get back to a .500 record. The sophomore has made six saves and allowed just one goal in his two wins this season. Maryland’s defense has improved immensely since Neumann’s return as he has only had to face 13 shots through 180 minutes. Before Neumann, freshman goalie Jamie Lowell faced 31 shots in three starts and let in six goals. Keep an eye out for if Maryland can continue rolling defensively with Neumann in between the sticks.

3. Can the Terps continue their climb up the Big Ten standings? After an 0-3 start, Maryland responded. The Terps have won their last two matches and have conceded just one goal over the last 180 minutes of play. Michigan State is a team located toward the basement of the Big Ten standings and this will just be another game that Maryland desperately needs to win as we enter the second half of the regular season.

The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Terps, as they play two top-four teams in the Big Ten in their final four matches (Penn State and Indiana). It continues to be now-or-never for a Maryland team that is slowly crawling back in the Big Ten standings.

“This is honestly, except for that Wisconsin game, I think this is probably the biggest game of the season so far,” Rindov said. “We’ll definitely have to keep the energy up in the back and keep it going as best as we can.”