A week after opening its season with a tie on the road at UMass, the Harvard men’s soccer team welcomes Big Ten opponent Michigan State to Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium for its home opener Friday afternoon.
In the Spartans (1-2-1), the Crimson (0-1-1) faces its first big conference test at home since a 2-1 victory over Stanford of the Pac-12 in the 2010 home opener. Michigan State, a perennial contender in one of the biggest athletic conferences in the country, is coming to the Northeast for a pair of games against Harvard and Providence.
“Playing a higher profile team isn’t intimidating for us,” sophomore Michael Innocenzi said. “If anything, it’s better for us because we usually have a problem getting up for games because there isn’t a big crowd. On a Friday night with a team like Michigan State, I think this should get us going.”
In preparing for this weekend’s matchup, Crimson coach Carl Junot has emphasized capitalizing on opportunities in front of the net. Harvard’s only goal so far this season came from sophomore Hiroki Kobayashi in the first half of the opener. After going scoreless in a 1-0 loss against Northeastern, the team has spent the last week focusing on shooting and crossing drills.
“We’ve been shooting a lot on goal, trying to fix our goal scoring problem,” Innocenzi said.Goal scoring has been a problem that has plagued Harvard since last season, when the Crimson scored just 14 goals in 17 games. Compounding Harvard’s offensive woes is the loss of Kobayashi to injury.
Kobayashi hurt his leg in the sixth minute of Sunday’s game against the Huskies and expected to return to action this weekend. Despite him saying that it was “feeling good” he will most likely not see action until sometime next week.
Despite the loss of Kobayashi, the Crimson will benefit from the return of senior Zack Wolfenzon and sophomore Tim Schmoll from injury. Wolfenzon and Schmoll will give a needed break to some of the rookies who have seen larger-than-expected roles so far this season due to injuries and sidelined veterans.
The Spartans have had scoring woes of their own, netting just two goals in four contests so far. Defense has been one of the bright spots for Harvard as center backs senior Richard Smith and freshman Mark Ashby have teamed with freshman goalkeeper Evan Mendez to limit opposing offenses to just two goals on 10 shots on goal.
“[Michigan State] is a good team, but nothing we should be afraid of,” Innocenzi said. “If we play our game and execute our game plan, we should be fine.”
Scoring notwithstanding, the Crimson’s progress so far this season has given reason for optimism among players and fans alike. The current offensive system was not instituted until the latter half of last season, and now, almost a year in, it is beginning to gain traction in the minds of the players who are executing it on a day-to-day basis.
“The past two games we haven’t been able to get the win,” Kobayashi said. “But we’re still confident in our system and are just trying to be more competitive and really perfect our style.”
On Sunday, Harvard welcomes the Southern Methodist Mustangs (0-2-1) who leave the friendly confines of the Southwest for a northeastern road trip with Dartmouth and the Crimson.In its 107-year existence, Harvard has never played either of this weekend’s opponents. Despite this fact, there is no fear of the unknown in the Crimson locker room.
“We are always excited to play a team we haven’t played before,” Kobayashi said. “We are not afraid of them.”
This weekend’s home stand serves as a springboard into the rest of the season. Harvard hosts UConn on Sept. 14 before heading west for the Nike Central Coast Challenge against Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara. After returning to Cambridge, the Crimson hosts Yale to start off the Ivy League campaign. Last year, Harvard went winless in the Ancient Eight for the first time in program history.
Given the state of affairs at the end of last season, the team is optimistic about its current progress.
“We’re starting to come together as a team and are really excited to show what we can do,” Innocenzi said.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at email@example.com.