Inside The Pitch: The Education Of A Goalie
Sept. 17, 2009
Inside the Pitch is a weekly notebook highlighting the top stories and the most compelling personalities in all of D-I Men's Soccer, brought to you every Thursday.
**Note: Avery Steinlage extended his scoreless streak to 1,258:08 minutes on Friday in MSU's win over Loyola Marymount
By Kevin Scheitrum
Avery Steinlage wants to talk to you.
Not just you. But don’t be offended. He wants to talk to everybody.
“He’ll introduce himself to anyone,” Michigan State teammate and captain Jeff Ricondo said. “He’ll talk to any crowd. You put him in any situation and he’s the life of the party. And he doesn’t really have a filter with his mouth, so he can say some pretty ridiculous things.”
Once, that all made Steinlage a genuinely fun kid to be around. A good locker room guy, as they say. But it didn’t make him a great goalkeeper. Avery Steinlage, the personality, kept getting in the way of Avery Steinlage, the goalie. It’s only been over the past year and a half that he’s really learned how to split those beings, to cram the conversations into his gym bag for later. And in those 18 months, the redshirt junior has been, as much as any goalie in the history of the NCAA, great.
You see, Steinlage hasn’t allowed a goal since Oct. 15, 2008. That’s 12 straight games – eight at the end of ’08 and four to start this year – without giving up a single official goal. One thousand, one-hundred, sixty-five minutes and eight seconds of game action. The record had stood at 974:20, which Steinlage broke on Sept. 6. The last time one did sneak through, against Illinois-Chicago, it came on a penalty kick (later in 2008, UIC sent MSU from the NCAA Tourney in penalty kicks, but officially, the game’s a 0-0 tie).
Even more, if you’re talking about just goals scored during the flow of play, he hasn’t allowed one since Oct. 8 of last year, when Notre Dame put up three on the Spartans.
“He’s really turned the corner this year and toward the end of last year,” Michigan State coach Damon Rensing said. “Early in his career, he had a hard time differentiating when to be kind of fun and outgoing and when it was time to turn it on in practice and train hard. He’s kind of figured that our now, and he’s a leader.”
It’s not all him, Steinlage will tell you. He’s got a defense that has made his life simpler, if not easier, in Rensing’s first year. Over the offseason, the team moved to a flat-4 system, after years of working with a sweeper. And it’s adjusted to the system the way that Louis Armstrong adjusted to the trumpet. In four games this year, Steinlage’s faced only nine shots. He’s, of course, stopped all of them.
"If you don’t get scored on, you don’t lose games," Steinlage said. "I think our team has taken a lot of energy and pride in this streak right now."
In a way, Steinlage’s been a symptom of the greater change in Michigan State this year, one that began with offseason workouts meant exorcising the pain from the UIC loss along with any whispers of doubt, not to mention any extra pounds. He’s been needed less thus far this year, reflecting a defense anchored by a quartet – Jake Fullerton, Tim Granaderos, Kevin Cope and Colin Givens – that hasn’t let too much of anything get to him. But when he has been looked to, he’s answered.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do – I’m not supposed to get scored on,” Steinlage said. “As a team we’ve done a great job, obviously. I only have nine saves this year, so it hasn’t been a ton of work – the defenders have been great.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “Sometimes it’s boring when we do play that well, but it’s fun to watch the guys pass the ball around.”
But that wasn’t the case last year. In the eight games that composed the beginning of The Streak, he made 50 saves, including 10 against Michigan on Oct. 18 (the very beginning). If you go back two more games, through the UIC game that saw a penalty kick sneak in, add 15 more saves, including 11 in a home shutout over conference hyper-rival Indiana.
And if you focus, hard, on that Indiana game, you’ll see him turn a corner.
“I think getting a shutout at home against Indiana [is when the transition happened],” Rensing said. “Then, against Michigan, you could see that he was growing and growing.”
If you lean in, you’ll see him shake off the three goals against Notre Dame – coming just 10 days after allowing three to Penn State – to freeze an Indiana team that finished the season an overtime loss away from the College Cup. And you’ll see him start to understand what being a college goalie means, how his “mind caught up with the pace of the game,” Rensing said.
He hadn’t started until 2008, stepping his way up the depth chart after redshirting his first year. And when the season began last year, he wasn’t even the No. 1 guy in net. But after two losses in which MSU allowed seven goals to start the year, he got the nod against Buffalo – and posted a three-save shutout in his first-ever collegiate start against Buffalo on Sept. 12. Steinlage followed with a 12-save effort in Michigan State’s 1-0 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 21.
“We knew he had a big upside,” he said. “He was capable of making the spectacular save, but we didn’t know how he could do in terms of managing the game, communicating with the team.
“I don’t know if it was frustrating,” Rensing continued. “Early on, you kind of understand that that’s gonna happen, but you did see a kid with a lot of potential who maybe didn’t push himself to get to that potential. Over the last year, 18 months you’ve really seen him do that.”
Michigan State scored only three goals in its final three games leading up to the NCAA tournament. That’s all it needed, with Steinlage posting 16 saves as the Spartans dispensed with Northwestern twice, then Indiana to claim the Big Ten crown. And by that time, he’d grown into the position, Rensing said. As he did, Steinlage’s personality found its way back out, as he and the field players started feeding off the energy emanating from the net.
“It’s a great morale-booster for a team,” the coach said. “They feel like they can win any game. It’s gonna take a good goal – a great goal – to beat him.”
He’s cut almost 30 pounds since last season, so now he’s even more apt to make the spectacular save. He’s gotten louder, more of a field general, as you see that maybe he hasn’t packed away the personality, just refined it to its barest and most practical essentials.
He’s become more than just a last line of defense, one man perched on the line of chalk between a team’s success or collapse. He’s become a leader on a team bent on proving that, after the loss of six seniors, the Spartans are far from “rebuilding,” Ricondo said.
“I think he’s progressed 100 percent,” Ricondo said. “When he came in, he wasn’t the fittest kid in the world, but this summer, he’s lost 30 pounds working out and running. Confidence-wise, he’s definitely grown a lot, too. He might’ve been shaky sometimes, but for the most part right now, he’s solid.”
“Now he sees professional soccer as a possibility,” Rensing said. “I think [when he came in, he saw college soccer as an means to an end. Now he understands what it takes to go further.”
That approach rubs off, Ricondo said. Confidence spawns confidence, and the team takes solace in knowing that one mistake won’t necessarily – and hasn’t for 12 games – translated into a goal. And there aren’t many people beaming more confidence than Steinlage right now.
“It’s fun to have success and get these accolades, but it’s not that big of a deal,” Steinlage said. “It’s more of a team thing. I’d rather have a Final Four or NCAA championship than all these accolades for sure.”
THE DURHAM BROTHERHOOD
The nation’s top athletic programs speak in their alumni mailers about continuity, about the link between the generations of graduates. About, with a measure of hyperbole, family.
At Duke, there’s not much of an exaggeration. Three sets of brothers play on the team – two of them, twins. There’s the McDaniels, Austin and Ryan, a junior and senior, respectively, out of Longwood, Fla. Then there’s the Browns, freshman twins Christian and Ryan, out of Plano, Tx. Finally, the Tweed-Kents, Dan and Christopher, hailing from Pittsfield, Mass.
The latter duo may have the best story, with both of them joining the Blue Devils as walk-ons last year. A year later, they’re staples in the lineup, with Dan taking home ACC Player of the Week honors after tallying the game-winner last week against Virginia to help vault the Blue Devils to No. 11 in the country. It was Tweed-Kent’s first career goal.
This weekend features a crucial matchup for the brothers and the Blue Devils, who have exploded to the top-15 after starting the season unranked. Now standing at 4-0-0, the team’s set for a matchup with arch-nemesis and No. 3 North Carolina (one of the four ACC teams in the top-11, with Wake Forest at No. 2 and Maryland at No. 4) at 7 p.m. on Friday night in Chapel Hill.
FRONT LINES – Looking forward
The bulk of this weekend’s action takes place in Akron, where the top-ranked Zips are hosting the University of Akron Tournament, flush with top-25 talent. On Friday night, the hosts tangle with No. 8 Indiana at 7:30 p.m. (ET), followed by a game on Sunday against Saint Louis, unranked in the NSCAA poll but ranked as high as No. 21 elsewhere.
Otherwise, Duke-UNC on Friday in Chapel Hill (7 p.m.) night marks a chance for Duke to make a true statement, after dropping No. 16 Virginia in OT next week. Both teams are undefeated.
Elsewhere, look for Virginia, now at No. 20, to scrap for redemption against No. 2 Wake Forest on Friday in Winston-Salem (7 p.m.).
Saturday sees yet another big ACC matchup, with No. 4 Maryland clashing with No. 23 N.C. State in Raleigh.
On Sunday, the lone other top-25 matchup comes when No. 5 South Florida clashes with No. 21 Notre Dame at 1 p.m. at home.
SET PIECES – Trinkets from around the country, teed-up just for you.
Wisconsin-Green Bay is off to its best start since 1977, with the Phoenix blowing open to a 4-0-1 record. The success hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Green Bay climbed to the No. 6 position in the Great Lakes in the NSCAA poll, along with the No. 29 spot in the College Soccer News poll on Sept. 13. The Phoenix lead the Horizon league with 13 goals and 10 assists.
DePaul’s aptly-named offensive engine, Steffen Vroom, scored three goals last week, earning him Soccer America Player of the Week honors.
Boston University fell to Harvard on Friday night in a battle of unbeatens, but the Terriers rallied to drop No. 1/3 St. John’s on Monday for BU’s first win over a top-ranked team since 1994.
Every WCC team this year, except 2-2-0 Santa Clara, has a record above .500. This time last year, not a single team in the conference cracked the .500 mark. (Thanks to SoccerAmerica for the heads up)
Maryland got its offense going on Tuesday night, getting a hat trick from Casey Townsend to hammer Duquesne, 7-0.
After a 2-1 OT loss to New Mexico, Notre Dame plummeted from No. 10 to No. 21 in the NSCAA poll. The Irish take on DePaul and South Florida on Friday and Sunday, respectively.
Teams of the Week:
GK: Avery Steinlage, Michigan State; D: Chris Korb, Akron; MF: J.C. Banks, Wis.-Green Bay; Andrew Bulls, UMBC; Ryan Clark, Monmouth; Matt Lodge, Kentucky; F: Justin Davis, New Mexico; Matt Eliason, Northwestern; Alex Tarnoczi, Denver; Steven Vroom, DePaul; Andrew Wiedeman, California.
Top Drawer Soccer
GK: Jeff Attinella, South Florida; M/F: Max Alvarez, Sacramento State; Andrew Wiedeman, California; Matt Eliason, Northwestern’ Matt Kassel, Maryland; Rich Balchan, Indiana; Mauro Fuzetti, Michigan; Evan James, Charlotte; Doug Verhoff, Ohio State; Alex Tarnoczi, Denver; D: Len Coleman, Georgetown.