Aug. 27, 2010
The men's soccer season gets underway in a week, but fans can get a peek at the team - and the entire Big Ten - at the Soccerpalooza National Soccer Festival in Fort Wayne, Indiana. All games will be played at Hefner Fields (1807 California Road), and the event stretches from Thursday through Sunday. The Spartans will be one of Sunday's main attractions when they tussle with Duke on Sunday at 11 a.m. The two teams met last season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, with the Blue Devils advancing on a 2-1 decision.
That's the theme for the 2010 men's soccer season - and the commitment that everyone must have for the team to accomplish it's goals. The Spartans, who return all but one letterwinner (starting outside back Tim Granaderos) from the 2009 team (and brought in a top-30 class, based on rankings by College Soccer News), are relying on utilizing their depth and experience to make a run at their second Big Ten title in three seasons.
There's certainly some national feeling toward the Spartans being serious contenders to do so. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA) poll finds MSU at No. 24 in the preseason, while Soccer America puts MSU at No. 23, College Soccer News slots the Spartans at No. 19 and Top Drawer Soccer has MSU at No. 18.
The Big Ten Conference promises to be as challenging as ever - MSU is among five teams receiving votes in the four national college soccer polls. "A lot this season is going to be about mental toughness," admits second-year head coach Damon Rensing, who guided an injury-laden squad to an 11-8-2 overall record in his first season as head coach. "We have depth and experience - and we will enter every game with the mindset that we can compete to win. How do you respond to adversity? How do you come back after a big win or a tough loss? Those intangibles are going to determine a lot for us this season, in addition to the normal factors like sticking to our game plan and staying healthy. I really believe that we have all the tools to compete for a Big Ten title."
Adhering to the mantra that defense wins championships, the Spartans appear to be in good hands as they enter the season with two-time First Team All-Big Ten selection and preseason Hermann Trophy candidate Avery Steinlage in net. Steinlage is a former NCAA statistical champion in saves percentage (.925 in 2008) and has ranked among Big Ten statistical leaders the last two seasons. The redshirt senior played more league soccer in this past offseason than in previous years, and appears ready to continue his dominant play for MSU.
The defense in front of Steinlage will be anchored by center backs Colin Givens and Kevin Cope. The pair each has significant experience at their positions. Givens, a senior, played in 18 of 21 games a season ago, while Cope played in all 21. The duo helped the Spartans to a staunch 0.87 team goals-against. There has been significant competition for the outside backs positions, and Rensing has a stable of players who can both earn a starting role on the outside or capably back up either there or in the center. Among the competitors is senior Jake Fullerton (21 GP, 0-1-1), juniors Mark Barone (19 GP, 2-2-6), and Stephen Lucianek (18 GP, 1-2-4), and sophomore Ryan Thelen (9 GP, 0-1-1). Freshman Josh Barens will also challenge for playing time, as he has held his own with returning players during the preseason.
The midfield expects to be a position of strength for the Spartans, with seniors Nosa Ihoya, Spencer Thompson, and Jeff Ricondo. Ricondo was the team's second-leading scorer a season ago (21 GP, 5-7-17), and Thompson (who shares the team captaincy with Ricondo) put up two goals and four assists in 21 games, Iyoha, a four-year starter for MSU, missed six games last season, but returns healthy and determined. Junior Cyrus Saydee , who ranked right behind Thompson on the scoring chart a year ago (21 GP , 4-2-10). Junior Matt Cebula (10 GP in 2009) is a versatile option for Rensing, available to play either in the midfield or in the back - he, along with classmate Mark Barone (19 GP, 2-2-6), Louisville transfer Brent Rosendall, and freshmen Cody Henderson and Wesley Curtis (who was featured in Top Drawer Soccer's Top 100 Freshmen to Watch list) give the coaching staff several talented, capable players to complement the play of the senior leaders at the position.
The Spartans also boast several capable scorers up front - top returning scorer Rubin Bega had 10 goals and 25 points as a sophomore, and Domenic Barone had 2-3-7 in just 10 games a season ago before losing half his season to injury. Rensing feels good about the skill he has at his disposal - in addition to his top two upperclassmen, sophomore Nick Wilson returns to the fold, and freshman Tim Kreutz brings more depth to the position.
Expectations are high in East Lansing, and an ultra-competitive Big Ten is not all that faces the Spartans in its 2010 schedule. Preseason top-ten pick Duke will serve as fierce competition in an exhibition at the Soccerpalooza National Soccer Festival in Fort Wayne (Aug. 29), and MSU opens with No. 3 Maryland and Georgetown on the road the first weekend of the season. The Big Ten-Big East Challenge pits the Spartans against Marquette and Notre Dame in mid-September, and a Nov. 3 date with national runner-up Akron (No. 1 in some polls this preseason) looms in the season's final week.
"Its by design," admits Rensing about the 2010 schedule, and he feels that he has the personnel to compete with the nation's best, en route to proving that his Spartans are among that elite company. Eyes are on a Big Ten title and NCAA Tournament bid, where the experiences gleaned from the ambitious schedule will hopefully play dividends in the Tournment's survive-and-advance format.