Santa Barbara, Calif — Michigan State men’s soccer's first appearance in the College Cup in 50 years ended in a 5-1 semifinal loss to Akron on Friday.
David Egbo, Carlo Ritaccio, Skye Harter, Marcel Zajac and Braden Petno scored for Akron (14-6-2), which advances to play Maryland (12-6-4) in Sunday's final.
Patrick Nielsen accounted for MSU's lone goal in the 79th minute.
“Soccer could be the highest of highs and it could be cruel. It was a rough game tonight, I don’t think the score is indicative of the play, but Akron has been lethal and it wasn’t in the cards for us tonight,” MSU head coach Damon Rensing said.
The Spartans (14-4-4) started aggressively pressuring the Zips on defense. Akron is known for its technical game style, and instead of sitting back in its own half, Michigan State opted to push defenders onto the Zips’ side of the field in order to disrupt them.
The one downside to constant pressure and counterattacks, however, were the constant gaps left in Michigan State’s side of the pitch. In the 15th minute, the Zips took advantage of this scoring the first goal.
Zips’ midfielder Harter took the ball up the left side of the pitch and sent in a floating cross just past the outstretched arms of Spartan goalkeeper Jimmy Hague to a wide open midfielder Morgan Hackworth. Hackworth headed the ball off the top right post, but Zips’ star forward Egbo was there to clean it up, blasting the ball into the upper right corner and into the back of the net for his 13th goal of the season in the 16th minute.
The Spartans were able to regroup quickly and had their best opportunity of the game just five minutes later as Spartans forward Hunter Barone received a deep outlet pass from Giuseppe Barone, putting him one on one with Akron’s goalkeeper Ben Lundt.
Giuseppe Barone could not put it past the keeper for the equalizer.
Michigan State almost tied the game again in the 24th minute, when a low driven shot by forward Dejuan Jones was deflected right to the feet of Ryan Sierakowski in front of goal. His shot off the rebound was deflected and cleared by Akron defender Abdi Mohamed, and the Spartans would only attempt one other shot for the rest of the first half.
The contrast in style became more evident as the half wore on. MSU's deep runs and crosses were countered by Akron’s stingy ball possession.
“They were flying from the start and they pressured us not letting us play out the back and they just did a great job of executing their chances,” senior defender Connor Corrigan said.
Missed opportunities would come back to bite Michigan, as Akron extended its lead in the 32nd minute following a header from Zips’ Carlo Ritaccio off a corner kick from Colin Biros. The goal put the Spartans down 2-0 heading into halftime.
Michigan State came out of the gates firing in the second half. A few minutes in, midfielder Robbie Cort snuck past the Akron defense to set up a solid shot on goal that Zips’ goalie Lundt saved easily. The Spartans didn’t get many clean chances after that, however, and the physical nature of the second half began to take its toll.
Akron would continue the pressure in the second half, adding two more goals in the first 20 minutes.
Nielsen slotted a high arching corner by midfielder Jack Beck into the bottom right corner of the goal for his first goal of the tournament to give the Spartans a measure of satisfaction in the 79th minute.
“When it was 4-0 our guys could have given but they kept grinding to get a goal and we didn’t give in, the same way we played all season,” Rensing said.
The Zips would answer on Petno's header six minutes later however, effectively ending the game and Michigan State’s great season that saw the team win 14 games, its most since 2013.
Although they obviously hoped to be in the championship match on Sunday, the Spartans were still able to see the bright side of things after the game and take pride in their great season.
“We brought this program to the first Final Four in 50 years,” Corrigan said. “I could not be more proud of how our guys competed.”
Omar Hernandez and Jorge Mercado are freelance writers