After watching the regular season unfold for Penn State, in which the Nittany Lions earned a No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, one thing that became apparent is that they almost always have the best player on the pitch.
Junior midfielder and captain Aaron Molloy has proven he can control a game for an entire 90-minute stretch, while also possessing the ability to swing a match into Penn State’s favor with just one strike of the ball.
Coach Jeff Cook has said multiple times throughout the year that Molloy might not just be the best player in the conference, but maybe the best player in collegiate soccer as a whole.
That’s high praise from a coach who hasn’t even spent an entire year with the midfielder.
But it also has merit, considering Cook came from a coaching job within the system of MLS side the Philadelphia Union and has seven NCAA tournament berths under his belt from his time as the head coach at Cincinnati and Dartmouth.
In the Nittany Lions’ formation, a 4-2-3-1, Molloy opens the game as a holding midfielder alongside Mitchel Bringolf, with Callum Pritchatt predominantly as the attacking mid. Molloy interchanges with the two other positions within the flow of the game, constantly communicating in order to ensure that one position is never left unfilled.
Whether it’s tracking back to make a tackle in the midfield, intercepting passes, or bombing forward looking to create a chance, Molloy is all over the field making whatever impact he can to control the tempo for Penn State.
Molloy seems to always end up in the right place at the right time, especially when the Nittany Lions have a long spell of possession, and this is what makes him so dangerous and so valuable to the sides attack.
In two separate instances during the regular season, seemingly out of nowhere, Molloy was able to score incredible long shots that most players at this level wouldn’t even think to attempt.
The first wonder-goal came against Ohio State in the first Big Ten matchup of the season for both sides.
The game was deadlocked at 0-0, and the Nittany Lions had a handful of shots but were not able to get on the board until Molloy found the back of the net.
The ball was cleared from the box and headed by an Ohio State midfielder, only for it to be kicked back towards the box where Molloy, whose back was to the goal, turned and fired a beautiful volley past the keeper.
This is one of the most impressive goals that I’ve seen all season in collegiate soccer — let alone the Big Ten.
The second instance came against Maryland in a late-conference matchup. Penn State found itself down 2-0 as the half was coming to an end after being dominated by the Terrapins.
But with four seconds left on the clock, a clearance from the Maryland defense made its way to an on-running Molloy in the midfield, who from just under 30 yards out put a rocket past an astounded Maryland keeper.
The goals Molloy scored were spectacular to take in, but even more, they were game changers.
The goal against Ohio State sparked the Nittany Lions’ offense that had time and time again been denied at the doorstep in attempts prior. Penn State went on to win the game 3-1 and start out 1-0 in conference play.
The goal against Maryland came on the stroke of half time after the side had gone down 2-0. The difference between going into the locker room with a two goal deficit compared to just one is enormous, and it showed. The Nittany Lions came out and dominated the entirety of the second half, scoring another goal to even the score at 2-2 and force overtime.
Even though Penn State ended up falling to Maryland in the second overtime period, their performance was indicative of much more than just a tally in the loss column.
In soccer, all it takes is one moment of brilliance to get a result against a team of more quality and experience — and it happens all the time.
Especially with the way that Penn State has defended recently, holding five clean sheets in the last seven matches, it may only take a single strike to make the difference between a first round exit and making a deeper run.