After picking up a 1-0 victory over Michigan State and making it through the first half of the Big Ten season with an unblemished record, a conference title seems well within reach for the Wisconsin men’s soccer team.
While their 7-4-2 overall record may not reflect that of a top team in the conference, the Badgers showed Sunday at the McClimon Complex that they are transforming into serious contenders for their first Big Ten championship since 1995. Not long ago in mid-September, Wisconsin had dropped three straight games and looked to be working toward another rebuilding year, but all that has suddenly changed with the start of conference play.
However, in their third straight conference win over the Spartans, the Badgers demonstrated that they have both the offensive firepower and the aggressive defense to compete with the Big Ten’s best.
Picked to finish last in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll, Wisconsin now sits alone atop the Big Ten standings at 3-0.
“It’s 50 percent through, there’s a lot of games left,” head coach John Trask said. “But, I also think, maybe just now those other teams have to really think about really coming at us, and I think that changes a team’s mentality. Nine points in three games in the Big Ten, if someone told me [we'd be in that spot] two months ago, [I'd say] ‘Where do I sign up?’”
While UW fired off only seven shots, including only one in the second half, the Badgers have proved their defense is strong enough to keep them in games. Still a young team with a roster dominated by underclassmen, the Badgers are clearly learning each other’s tendencies and becoming a better squad with each game.
With goalkeeper Max Jentsch continuing his outstanding play in front of the net and a young defense that looks increasingly stronger in every game, the Badgers have no lack of momentum as they attempt to take home a surprising Big Ten crown.
The defensive growth was clear late against the Spartans, who, despite playing with only 10 men, continued to attack the goal.
As the clock dipped below the five-minute mark, younger defenders AJ Cochran, Blake Succa, Paul Yonga and David Caban booted balls away from the goal line and refused to surrender a late goal. Despite their youth, coaches and players were impressed with the defensive unit’s ability to shut down Michigan State’s offense, allowing only six shots in the game.
“We’re working well together, and as each game goes on, we’re getting better at the small things,” Cochran said. “As long as we can continue in the second half to keep playing hard and not give up that late goal, good things should happen.”
The Spartans were coming off a two-game winning streak and featured serious scoring threats in Mark Barone and Rubin Bega, but the Badgers ‘D’ was able to frustrate the MSU offense throughout the game.
Noticeably excited after closing out a win over a talented Michigan State squad, players and coaches agreed they are starting to develop into a Big Ten title-caliber team. With only one loss (to No. 5 Creighton) in their last eight games, it’s clear that their improved performance in Big Ten play is no fluke.
“Do I think we would’ve been here [a month ago]? Honestly, I don’t know,” senior forward Josh Thiermann said. “We had to sort some serious stuff out, and there’s a lot of hard work that had to go into it, but we all believed that we could do it, that’s why it’s here, that’s why we’ve allowed ourselves to be in this situation.”
In a hard-fought, physical game full of heated exchanges, the Badgers ended up looking more like a veteran team against the Spartans. Closing out yet another single-goal victory, Wisconsin proved Sunday afternoon that it has what it takes to finish as the king of the conference.
With only two seniors seeing the field against Michigan State, players appear to be more comfortable than ever on both sides of the ball and display the leadership of players well beyond their years. From Yonga’s communication on defense to Chris Prince’s brilliantly executed goal in the first half, the Badgers are proving that they don’t need veteran leadership to win.
“There’s been a lot of growth, everybody’s had to mature, especially some of these younger guys coming in,” Thiermann said. “You got freshmen – Caban, Cochran – that are holding down serious positions on this team for us. We’ve had to look at [the younger players] and say hey, you need to play like you’re three years older than you are. And it speaks volumes for them and all the other guys that have come off the bench as well.”