Squad Rotation Key For Penn State Men’s Soccer In Home Stretch

Penn State men’s soccer has seen a bit of a renaissance in head coach Jeff Cook’s second season. The Nittany Lions find themselves in second place in a crowded Big Ten race, and earned their first Top-25 ranking since 2015 last week.

The success isn’t an accident, and Cook’s men won’t be slowing down any time soon due to fatigue.

“We will come to a stage of the season where it’s single elimination,” Cook said. “[The team] has to stay really aggressive, and concentrate on the quality of the performance.”

Squad rotation has been a big theme, for one reason or another, in 2019. Cook hasn’t fielded identical consecutive starting lineups in all 14 matches so far this season. The lack of stability has caused competition within the squad, but the players have maintained a team-first mentality.

“We have a lot of guys who could play at any moment,” Cook said.

Much of the rotation has been caused via injury or suspension. However, the former Philadelphia Union academy manager has strategically filtered key players out of games at important times.

Freshman striker Liam Butts, who currently has seven goals in his debut season, played just 20 minutes in a comprehensive beatdown of Appalachian State last Friday. Cook gave star striker the day off when he needed it most. Butts will be called upon in the crucial Week 10 fixtures against No. 22 Maryland and Rutgers.

Sometimes, Cook’s surprising lineup changes are tactical instead of to give valuable members of the team rest.

“It is just about finding what works,” said Christian Sload, who was benched for a stint in the middle of the season before returning to the lineup for the home stretch. “He plays it by ear, and finds what best works for each game.”

Sload reentered the starting 11 for a 3-1 win over Pitt, and paired up with Butts to lead the line. The two strikers thrived due to Sload’s physicality complementing Butts’ speed and finishing prowess, a tactical change that stumped the in-state rivals.

In addition to changes in the striker position, Cook has rotated goalkeepers Kris Shakes and Josh Levine, an unusual tactic in a sport that usually sees a “number one” used exclusively until his reign is over. The wingback position has been a battleground as well, as Jalen Watson and Adam Laundree’s spots have been in jeopardy at moments this season.

No matter which lineup Cook uses, the Nittany Lions keep performing. This is valuable due to how compressed the regular season is compared to other fall collegiate sports.

The NCAA Tournament spans four weeks between mid-November and mid-December. The intensive 48-team playoff forces the regular season to be condensed into 10 short weeks, which results in many double-game weeks.

The Nittany Lions’ played eight matches in October alone. As the home stretch takes shape, all fixtures become increasingly important for postseason ramifications, yet it is unreasonable to expect players to be on the field the whole time. Cook has dealt with squad rotation well, and has preached getting their bodies right for the inevitable quick turnaround.

“There is such little time in between matches,” Cook said. “There is a big emphasis on recovery, rest, and managing off-the-field priorities.”

Sload, Butts, and the rest of the No. 19 Nittany Lions will gear up for the final stretch of the brutal regular season. The final match at Jeffrey Field will take place on Tuesday, October 29 against No. 22 Maryland, before a November 3 decision match versus Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey.

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons

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