Freshman midfielder McKenna Meuer of the Wisconsin women’s soccer team said it best: “The Big Ten [has] really good competition. So when you win, you really know that it means something.”
The pair of games this weekend are both tough and crucial wins for the No. 14 Badgers (6-2-0), who are looking for their first victory of the season against a conference opponent. Friday night, UW will host Michigan State (7-1-1). Wisconsin will also play Michigan (7-2-0) at home Sunday.
The Badgers need to win both games if they want to stand atop the conference race come November.
But questions arose after a tough 2-1 road loss to Penn State Sunday as to if UW is really as good as it appeared at the start of the season. The Badgers were 6-1 heading into that first Big Ten matchup, the lone loss coming against No. 2 UCLA.
Head coach Paula Wilkins saw key areas that needed improvement against the Nittany Lions, specifically the need to be more consistent in the offensive third of the field.
“We had some opportunities, but I don’t think we were dynamic enough to capitalize on them,” Wilkins said. “And defending, I thought our individual defending needed to be better.”
With Michigan State on the docket first, UW’s offense is going to have to take advantage of any scoring opportunity that comes its way. The Spartan defense has not conceded more than one goal in each of the eight games they have played this season, and Michigan State goalkeeper Courtney Clem has recorded three shutouts this season.
But the Badgers don’t appear worried their mishaps against the Nittany Lions will continue to plague the scoreboard. Instead, they’re using their loss as motivation to crush the Spartans Friday night.
“Penn State is a really good team; to lose to them gives us more motivation to win the rest of the conference games,” said senior captain and midfielder Joana Bielefeld. “[Michigan State] is very organized, so we need to come in also organized, and I think that as long as we find feet we will be successful.”
The Spartans are not in for an easy game when they enter the McClimon Complex. UW’s offense is not dominated by a single player but has found success from a combination of scoring from forwards, the midfield and defensive players. This has forced past opponents to spread out their defensive players, giving Wisconsin advantageous additional space. Ten Badgers have already posted at least one goal this season, a group led by junior forward Paige Adams with four goals.
Adding to Wisconsin’s performance on the field will be a sizable crowd cheering behind the team. Friday night is the annual Pac the Mac event, which will feature a doubleheader with the Wisconsin men’s soccer team. Last year the event drew 1,194 fans to both games, with 624 people showing up for the women’s game.
“It’s definitely exciting the crowd is there cheering for you, so for our team that gives us motivation,” Meuer said. “It is nice to be surrounded by your friends and family and people that are rooting for Badgers.”
Friday’s game should be a close matchup, where consistency will again be the key to a Badger victory.
With an equally competitive match Sunday, Michigan poses a different set of challenges for Wisconsin.
The biggest will be shutting down junior Wolverines forward Nkem Ezurike, who was named Big Ten Player of the Week Monday. Ezurike scored two of the team’s three goals in a 3-0 shutout win against Indiana Saturday.
On the defensive side, goalkeeper Lauren Gunderson has been an instrumental part of the team’s success, keeping the young defensive line, which starts two freshmen, organized. The redshirt senior is averaging just under one goal allowed per game (.95).
“[Both teams] pose different problems because of their systems, so it is really going to be a challenge for us to face two different opponents with what they bring,” Wilkins said. “Michigan obviously has a big player up top with Nkem, but I think we need to focus on Friday where consistency is going to be the biggest thing.”
Last season, UW came out 1-0-1 in a similar week on the road against these two Michigan teams. The Badgers pulled off a 2-1 win over Michigan State, but Michigan held them scoreless in a 0-0 tie.
Friday’s game starts at 5 p.m. with the men’s game following it, and Sunday’s game will begin at 1 p.m.