Coming off a much-needed home victory against Cleveland State, the University of Wisconsin men’s soccer team is looking to build off that momentum and transfer it to the road, as it travels to Bloomington Saturday for a matchup with 14th-ranked Indiana.
Indiana is arguably the premier team in Big Ten soccer, having garnered 12 conference championships since the tournament format began in 1991. Once again, this year’s Hoosiers (8-2-1, 2-0 Big Ten) look primed to contend for yet another Big Ten title, so Wisconsin (3-4-3, 0-1) should have its hands full when it takes the field Saturday night.
However, this year’s Wisconsin squad is not lacking in experience when it comes to facing top-ranked opponents. Earlier in the season, the Badgers tangled with the likes of Georgetown and Marquette, now the No. 3 and No. 9 ranked teams in the country, respectively.
That experience in hard-fought games against quality opponents — UW tied Georgetown and lost to Marquette in double-overtime — supports the notion that Wisconsin can battle to the end against any team in the country.
“I think playing those late games you get used to the grit and the desire you need to pull through,” freshman forward Drew Conner said. “We’ve gotten unlucky in a few of the overtime games and that hurts, but we have that experience playing in overtime and I think that’s definitely going to help us.”
Another factor that may keep Wisconsin in Saturday’s game is players consider it a rivalry game. There is not a traditional or border battle between the squads, but the fact Indiana is one of the best teams in the Big Ten every year has forged a rivalry between the Badgers and Hoosiers.
Many players from both sides know each other well, so familiarity helps to facilitate the competition. Even though there is that familiarity, sophomore defender AJ Cochran is assured once the game begins, it will not exactly be a time for friends to catch up.
“Indiana is probably every year the one game on our schedule that we like to look forward to. … Once we cross those lines you have to have a different attitude,” Cochran said. “We’re not going to like them once we cross the lines and they’re not going to like us. There will probably be a little bad blood on the field, but we’ll see.”
Although the rivalry will help Wisconsin stay competitive from the opening whistle, the Badgers realize winning the game will take more than heartfelt emotions.
Based on its play thus far, Indiana lacks any glaring weaknesses on both the offensive and defensive sides. In 11 games, the Hoosiers have found the back of the net 20 times and average nearly two goals per game, an exceptional average for soccer.
Leading Indiana’s scoring attack is sophomore forward Eriq Zavaleta, who has tallied nine goals and two assists for a total of 20 points. Zavaleta should prove to be a big threat to Wisconsin’s chances to win, but he is not the only player who can contribute to the Hoosier’s offensive attack.
“Their whole team is pretty offensive-minded. They have A.J. Corrado and Harrison Petts, and their wing backs like to get up and advance,” Cochran said. “Their whole team is going to be solid and they are going to be looking to go to goal, so our defense is going to have to stay razor-sharp and hopefully keep that shutout.”
The Hoosiers’ offense deserves a great of deal of attention, but UW cannot forget about the Hoosiers’ air-tight defense. Eleven games into the season, Indiana has only surrendered six goals, or just more than half a goal a game. Indiana’s stellar defense, coupled with Wisconsin’s inability to score so far this season, could spell doom for the Badgers Saturday.
Wisconsin has a very solid defense of its own, and the defenders will be crucial in keeping the high-powered Indiana attack at bay. If the defense can play its part, Wisconsin may have a chance for the upset, but head coach John Trask said for the Badgers to compete, and more importantly to win, they will have to put together a complete team effort with limited mistakes.
If the Badgers can do that, they will be able to set the tone for the second half of the season, but regardless of the outcome, Saturday’s game should prove to be an exciting conference matchup.
“[Indiana is] a very well-rounded team. We’re going to have to play the best game we’ve played all season; I think the guys know that, and that’s how they are preparing mentally and physically,” Trask said. “It will be a great soccer game in Bloomington. It will be something … to show off the quality of the Big Ten Conference.”