Ohio State junior forward Matteo Bennati (16) fakes out a defender to set up a shot during the first period of the game against Wisconsin Nov. 3. Ohio State lost 1-0. Credit: John Huether | For The Lantern

Despite playing on Ohio State’s soccer team, Matteo Bennati would say he’s been an avid footballer his whole life.

The path to Ohio State for the junior forward has spanned two countries and two Division I colleges. But it began at a young age in Genova, Italy.

“I have been playing soccer since I was 6 years old,” Bennati said. “So it has been pretty much my life.”

However, the road to playing high-level soccer in Italy is not the same as in the United States, as Bennati said club teams take the place of middle school, high school or college soccer.

Bennati started his career on club teams before being selected to the Genoa FC Soccer Academy. After playing at that level until he was 15 years old, he stepped back down to the club level in search of more playing time, he said.

The competition increased as Bennati grew older and joined better clubs.

“The most difficult transition is when you get from young soccer, or you are 18, and you go with people who are 30 years old and have sons and daughters who take it kind of like a second job,” Bennati said. “Then it becomes rough if you don’t show your teeth, if you are not tough enough.”

After competing at a high level in Italy, Bennati continued to try and move up through the Italian ranks. Then he learned about collegiate soccer in the U.S.

“I was about to go into the fourth division [of Italian soccer], but then I found out about this opportunity,” Bennati said. “I started to look around and see if I could come over, or if I could get a scholarship or see what coaches were interested. I didn’t know much about college soccer to be honest.”

He landed a scholarship from Belmont to play forward. 

Playing the same game in a new country, Bennati faced the change head-on. He earned Horizon League Freshman of the Year in 2017, was named second-team All-Southern Conference in 2018 and led Belmont in goals both seasons.

After success at Belmont, Bennati said he wanted something more.

“I decided that it was time to take a step up this time,” Bennati said. “So I decided to transfer, and I got contacted by some good schools, but obviously Ohio State was the best.”

Since transferring from Belmont to Ohio State, Bennati has noticed a rise in competition level.

“The challenge is just awesome and is what I was looking for,” Bennati said. “[The Big Ten] is where you actually have to show who you are and what kind of player you are. I enjoyed playing for Belmont, but here is where you show who you are.”

Head coach Brian Maisonneuve said he sees Bennati taking the switch in stride. 

“It is not easy, that type of transition from Italy to Belmont, Belmont to here. I mean that is a lot of moves,” Maisonneuve said. “He has got a great personality. He has got good leadership skills. Everybody likes him in the locker room. You can see why he has made those transitions so smoothly.”

Bennati scored two goals over a three-game period in October, including against Cleveland State and Michigan State, bringing his season total to three.

Sophomore midfielder Xavier Green, who has found the net twice this season, has noticed a trait in Bennati’s play that allows him to thrive on the field.

“He loves turning inside,” Green said. “He’s got the defender on his back, and he is really good at turning inside and dribbling, and he has scored some good goals for us in and around the box.”

The Buckeyes have lost six consecutive games, with no wins since a 1-0 victory over Rutgers on Oct. 6. The eighth-seeded Buckeyes will play ninth-seeded Rutgers again in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament in Indiana Nov. 9, with the winner playing No. 1 Indiana the next day.

“We are shooting to go into the Big Ten Tournament as strong as we can. I’m sure all the guys will put 100 percent the effort, 100 percent of everything they got,” Bennati said. “I am confident we are going to put it all out there, and we will see then what is going to be the result.”