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Penn State Men’s Soccer Will Rely On Experienced Defense, Enlivened Forwards Under Cook

Penn State men’s soccer will kick off its regular season schedule when it hosts the University of Central Florida on Friday at 7 p.m. The Nittany Lions take the field in the hopes of improving on last season’s 5-10-2 record and seventh-place finish in the Big Ten.

“We want teams to have to respect us and adapt to the challenges we’re going to bring to our opponents,” said first-year head coach Jeff Cook.

The team’s success will depend on its adjustment to Cook’s soccer philosophy, the performance of an experienced and organized defense, and the scoring ability of a young and talented group of forwards.

New Coach, New Style

Cook arrived in Happy Valley last January after stints at Dartmouth, the University of Cincinnati,  Bethlehem Steel F.C., and the Philadelphia Union.

Cook is a 27-year coaching veteran with Division I experience at Dartmouth College and the University of Cincinnati. He served as an academy coach for the Philadelphia Union’s youth program and an assistant coach for United Soccer League side Bethlehem Steele F.C. This experience will be instrumental in pulling the Nittany Lions from their recent run of losing seasons.

He inherits a team built by Bob Warming, who spent eight seasons as Penn State’s head coach before retiring in November 2017. Adjusting to a new coach and his philosophy can be difficult for a squad of players, and the team’s success could depend on its implementation of Cook’s changes.

After an entire spring season and three competitive preseason scrimmages against La Salle College, national powerhouse Georgetown, and Pitt, the Nittany Lions should be relatively adjusted to Cook’s style and any culture changes he’s implemented in the locker room.

Cook emphasized the need to play a faster, passing-oriented game. 

“When we move the ball quickly, and play with quick combinations and get a lot of players involved, we can be really effective,” he said. “We want to have our way of playing.” 

A Bolstered And Experienced Backline 

From left to right: Gallagher, Levine, Marks, and Ireland will marshal an experienced backline this season.

Veteran center backs Dani Marks and Ryan Gallagher, who together accumulated more than 2,800 on-field minutes last season, will anchor an experienced defense that was tested by several of the nation’s best forwards last fall.

Regardless of Cook’s preferred formation, the Nittany Lions remain stacked at the back with a returning crew that includes center back Brandon Hackenberg, outside backs Kyle Perno, Austin Maloney, and Brennan Ireland, and the consistent but versatile Mitchel Bringolf. Each player has started consistently for Penn State in the past.

Cook also added Mason Deeds, a transfer center back who spent two years at Georgetown, to the roster earlier this month.

Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Josh Levine will complete the Nittany Lions’ defensive unit. His impressive display against Indiana last season cemented his place as Penn State’s first-choice shot stopper over Evan Finney and Arie Ammann.

Cook’s defense has had time to develop its own chemistry and understanding over multiple competitive Big Ten seasons. 

“We want to adopt this kind of blue-collar style of play where people come here and they hate coming up against us,” said Ireland.

In an area of the field where communication and organization are key, the Nittany Lions will have a solid base. 

Breaking The Goal Drought

Christian Sload is among the forwards tasked with improving Penn State’s goal tally this season. 

Penn State scored a total of 18 goals on 177 shots last season. The team failed to score in six of eight Big Ten matchups, including its knockout round loss to Indiana. Then-freshman striker Ethan Beckford led the team with five goals.

Beckford returns this season, but the Nittany Lions’ other forwards, wingers, and attacking midfielders will need to lighten his workload by contributing on offense.

In the absence of Canadian forward Aymar Sigue, the team will call on Christian Sload, Mac Curran, and freshman Jeremy Rafanello to finish the chances created by Aaron Molloy and the Penn State midfield.

Beckford and Rafanello started in the team’s final preseason match against Pitt last Friday but failed to score as the Nittany Lions lost 1-0. If a consistent partnership forms between them over the course of the season, however, they could wreak havoc on opposing defenses.

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About the Author

Jim Davidson

Jim is a junior English and history major and the features editor for Onward State. He, like most of the Penn State undergraduate population, is from 'just outside Philadelphia,' and grew up in Spring City, Pennsylvania. He covers a variety of Penn State topics, but spends nine months of every year waiting for the start of soccer season. You can reach him via email at [email protected] or follow him on twitter @messijim.

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