Soccer has a wonderful, underappreciated home in Happy Valley. For my money, Jeffrey Field is the best non-Beaver Stadium place to catch a Penn State sporting event. The energy from the loyal crowd creates a constant buzz that reverberates off the bleachers and into the hearts and minds of the student athletes taking the field there. Thanks to head coaches Erica Walsh and Bob Warming, the beautiful game is one of the most consistent Nittany Lion programs, and this year both teams will be making serious waves. We'll update you each week on the status of the teams, as Raqui Rodriguez, Connor Maloney and co. look to take the country by storm. This version will be the longest one most likely, as it's covering the widest time frame. I apologize in advance for my inability to find brevity.
The #7 Women (3-1-1)
The overflow of talent for this team is almost preposterous. Raquel Rodriguez starred in the World Cup this summer for Costa Rica, and opens the year ranked as Top Drawer's #13 player in the country, a ranking I'd generally describe as underrating just how good she is. Emily Ogle checked in at #27, and the sophomore midfielder is one of the engines that powers the Nittany Lions going forward and tracking back. By the time her senior season comes around, she'll likely be regarded as one of the five or so best players in America.
Forwards Frannie Crouse and Mallory Weber are 61st and 67th, respectively, and combine with Rodriguez to give Penn State one of the scariest attacks in the country, and though she hasn't played yet this season, sophomore Maddie Elliston, ranked 71st, has all the makings of a future rock in the heart of the PSU midfield. Put them all together with stud goalie Britt Eckerstrom, whose calmness in the face of attacks provides Walsh with the steady hand everyone desires behind a backline, and a collection of other talent that in the starting XI that all have the ability to be called top-100 players, and PSU looks primed for a real shot at an NCAA title.
The women opened the season with back-to-back wins against Hofstra and Loyola Marymount at home in the Jeff. Goals from Ogle and Weber and an assist from Ellie Jean secured the win in the former, a game in which the Lions outshot Hofstra 18-6 and could well have doubled their goal scoring total with a little luck.
The Loyola matchup was probably the most obvious win, but was beautiful in that it showed just how scary this attack is when it is hitting on all cylinders, so I'm going to go into some depth. Penn State had 27(!) shots, including 13(!!!) on goal. Weber opened the scoring with a missile into the upper 90 about 15 minutes in, and the defenses held firm for the next 35. However, between the 50th and 63rd minutes, an incredible offensive barrage saw the two sides combine for five goals. Crouse slotted home a rebound off the crossbar, and was immediately matched on a goal from LMU's Sarina Bolden. A few minutes later, nearly the same thing happened, as Charlotte Williams and Jocelyn Blakenship traded goals not 30 seconds apart. In the 63rd, Megan Schafer had a one-on-one chance and made a fool of an LMU defender, putting home the third goal in ten minutes to give Penn State a 4-2 win.
The 0-0 draw with #21 Duke was one of the most intense scoreless affairs you'll ever see, with Duke keeper EJ Proctor making an absurd 10 saves to keep the clean sheet. Penn State's attack was relentless, but Proctor had herself a day. Rarely do you see a scoreless draw feel like a barn burner, but it was easily one of the best games both teams will play all year.
Arkansas was a pretty straightforward 4-2 win, with a Schafer brace and goals from Weber and Crouse again leading the Lions to an undefeated home start. While it wasn't the prettiest game Penn State will play this year, it was a well-created victory against an Arkansas team that is certainly no joke.
Of course, going undefeated in college soccer is one of the hardest feats out there, and a matchup in Morgantown with #12 West Virginia proved that. Outshot for the first time all season, Penn State fell 1-0 to the Mountaineers getting just two shots on goal against a stout defense. After scoring a header in the 8th minute, WVU allowed its defense to try and control the game, and control they did. West Virginia is a fantastic squad, and losing to them is certainly nothing to feel ashamed of. If the Nittany Lions were going to lose to any team on their schedule this year, this is the one they'd take.
Walsh's girls will look to avenge the defeat this coming weekend, as a west coast swing has them in Palo Alto to play Stanford on Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern, and matched up with Santa Clara University at 1 p.m. on Sunday. While there are no easy points in soccer, Penn State looks primed to return to Happy Valley 5-1-1 heading in to Big Ten competition.
The #25 Men (1-1-1)
Here's a bold claim I feel very confident in staking: outside of Stanford's junior forward/god amongst mere mortals Jordan Morris, Connor Maloney is the best attacking player in America. Ranked #8 by Top Drawer, Maloney's talent on the ball as a dribbler and creative player, and his clinical mindset in front of goal are the straws that stir Penn State's proverbial drink, and they'll go as far as he can carry them. Though Maloney is the only player in the top-100, the upside of the young guns on the Lions squad is undeniable.
Forward Mac Curran and midfielder (and Connor's brother) Austin Maloney are as legit as it gets. Junior Riley Grant will get a far larger role after the graduation of Mikey Minutillo, and should make good on the opportunity. Goalie Matt Bersano, a transfer from Oregon State, has huge boots to fill after Andrew Wolverton's departure, but is primed for the opportunity. Defenders Drew Klingenberg, Nate Lee, Robby Sagel, and Dani Marks will look to provide the mettle at the back for a squad that could go many ways this season.
The opening game of the year was a solid matchup, pitting PSU against the University of San Francisco Dons. The younger Maloney's assist to Mac Curran was beautiful, and showed just how much upside Penn State has, as the 73rd minute goal was the difference in a 1-0 home opener win. The attack looked decent, but you could tell there were early season jitters, perhaps a bit of a hangover from the second-half slide that plagued Penn State in 2014. But if your defense is stout enough to hold a clean sheet, that one breakthrough is all you need.
Unfortunately, the offensive has still sputtered since that game. A 1-1 draw against Navy, in which the Nittany Lions were outshot 17-4 and, were it not for a Maloney penalty, would've been rightfully shut out. College soccer plays two overtime periods if the game is tied at the end of regulation, with a draw the result if nobody breaks it at the end of 110 minutes. A chippy last few minutes didn't result in many opportunities out of the dying embers, and a game in which 21 total fouls were committed gave Penn State a rather feckless draw.
As a prelude to the disaster that was the Penn State-Temple football game, their men's soccer sides clashed in Ambler, PA on what, again, was an ugly offensive showing. For an offensive that should be more free-flowing, the team is playing in the air far too often. When 6'1" Minutillo was still in town, it could be an effective, albeit not exactly pretty, strategy. With Maloney the undisputed best player on the squad though, the offense needs to play a more direct, ground-based game. It doesn't need to be joga bonito or total football, but an offense that looks lost when Maloney isn't on the ball is not one that is going to win the Big Ten this year. It's early days, but a 2-0 loss to Temple in which the Lions were outshot 16-5 does not bode well. Something's gotta change quickly. Bob Warming is one of the best coaches in America and this team has talent for days, so hopefully something clicks soon. There were glimmers, like a few Maloney chances that Temple strongly defended and a Mac Curran shot that forced Temple keeper Alex Cagle into a sprawling save. Hopefully they lead to balls finding nets sooner rather than later.
The men return home to take on James Madison at the Jeff at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, and open Big Ten play on Sunday against Indiana at 1 p.m. to finish the quick homestand. A good showing Tuesday would go a long way towards Penn State rounding into form and regaining the crown as Big Ten champions.