Photo Courtesy Missouri State Athletics
As the only undefeated soccer squad in Division I, it was time for #12 Missouri State Bears to flash the disrespect card. The Bears’ head coach, Jon Learny, following the NCAA Tournament selection show Monday, did little to brush off the frustration of losing a first-round bye when he told the Springfield-News Leader, “A bunch of suits in Indianapolis determine this crap, not us,” Jon Leamy said. “We play games and that’s what we like to do. We’ll go anywhere at any time to play. Teams need to play each other and that’s how we find out who’s best.”
But make no mistake, Leamy will put a chip on the shoulder of his Bears tonight when the Denver Pioneers visit Betty and Bobby Allison South Stadium in Springfield, Missouri for their first round of the NCAA men’s soccer playoffs at 6:00 pm MT (ESPN 3).
And before you try to minimize the Bears 17-0-1 record as ‘luck’ by an unknown soccer school, take a look at their squad packed with experienced international players. With only three players from Missouri, there are 8 players from the UK and they include the top-3 scorers in Matthew Bentley (14 goals), Josh Dolling (7) and Stuart Wilkin (5). Bentley earned the Missouri State’s first Valley Offensive Player of the Year honor by leading the conference in points (32) and goals (14) while ranking 12th nationally in both categories. Three other MSU players are from New Zealand and two players from both Spain and Italy. Oh, and don’t forget three other players from Norway, Sweden, and Canada. The Bears feature nine upperclassmen, four of them seniors. On the other side of the pitch tonight, Denver will be going to battle with no seniors.
Missouri State has outscored its opponents 2.28 to 0.61 goals per game for a total of 41-11. MSU features an excellent defense that ranks seventh nationally in goals-against average which is tied for the fifth-fewest in Division I. The Bears’ attack is one of the most effective in the nation, ranking in the top-15 in scoring offense (9th), points per game (10th), total goals (12th), and assists per game (10th). When it comes to goal production, the Bears have doubled up a Denver squad that scored only 21 goals while allowing 25 – more than twice as many as MSU. And DU had an excellent defense.
One of the few Missourians on the Missouri State roster, goalkeeper Michael Creek, has made all 18 starts in goal this season, ranking 10th in the nation in goals-against average (0.606).
The Pioneers will have their hands full tonight in Springfield, Missouri.
Keys to the Match:
- Survive the first half. The Bears will be fired up with their first-ever NCAA home soccer match. Pack the backline and limit scoring opportunities. Expect a wet field so limit defensive gambles on the back-end.
- Control midfield and optimize possessions. Play physical and win 50/50 balls.
- Take advantage of set-pieces, especially in the second half. The difference in the match may be decided by set-piece(s).