With a season that started off strong but has taken a beating since the start of Big Ten play, the Wisconsin women’s soccer team faces a crucial game against Nebraska at home Friday night.
The Badgers (7-4-1, 1-3-1 Big Ten) headed into their Big Ten season with an impressive 6-1 record. The strength of the conference has proven to be a challenge for the team, which has managed to come away with just one win in its first five games against Big Ten opponents.
Coming home from a two-game road series that included a devastating 3-2 loss to Minnesota and most recently a 0-0 tie to Ohio State, Wisconsin’s looming matchup with the Huskers (5-7-1, 2-3-0) is a chance to get back on the right track.
“We want to get back to the things we did well at the beginning of the season — our spacing, our decision-making, our movement,” head coach Paula Wilkins said. “All those things that were good in the beginning we have gotten away from.”
Key to the Badgers’ struggles in the Big Ten has been their inability to put the ball in the net. In the last five games, Wisconsin has scored just four goals, while its opponents have doubled that number, putting away eight goals against the team that calls the McClimon Complex home.
The problem has not been a lack of offensive opportunity. The issue lies in the inability to get a good finishing hit on the ball near the net. The Badgers were able to take 12 shots against Ohio State Sunday, but only two were on net.
“It’s that final touch. We talked about the X-factor, which is the little extra push, or an extra step,” Wilkins said. “We are getting there. … We need the grit to get the ball in the back of the net.”
The focus of practice this week for Wisconsin was continuing to find that final touch, something the team did well at the beginning of the season. In the seven nonconference games to start the season, the Badgers outscored their opponents 19-5.
“I don’t think we are being desperate enough in the box, but I think we all have a good attitude; we know what we want to do,” redshirt sophomore Kodee Williams said. “We have really been working on finishing in the final third; we realize we are getting there but not capitalizing on our chances.”
Nebraska will pose additional challenges for Wisconsin, mainly on defense. Husker forward Mayme Conroy is the team’s dominant offensive weapon. She has scored eight of Nebraska’s 19 goals this season.
In their most recent home game, the Badgers faced a similar offensive powerhouse in Michigan’s Nkem Ezurike. The defense struggled to contain Ezurike, who scored two goals.
“We have the experience with Michigan so we will use what we did wrong looking ahead now,” Wilkins said. “I think the service into [Conroy] we have to stop, but we will have people around her. Defensively we need to make sure we have our two center backs in better shape.”
The Huskers enter Friday’s game in a similar situation as Wisconsin. With three of their last four games ending in defeat, they are attempting to snap a two-game losing streak in Madison.
Not much history lies between the two teams. Wisconsin trails the all-time series 1-2-1 but posted its first win against the Huskers last season with a 2-0 victory in Lincoln. In just the program’s second year in the conference, Nebraska has traveled to Madison just once before, in 2003, and left with a tight 2-1 victory.
The Badgers currently sit at 10th place in the Big Ten standings, with the Huskers right above them in ninth place. Friday’s game is a winnable one for Wisconsin — if the team that started out the season shows up.
A win would put the team back in a position to have a strong finish in the conference. Only three Big Ten teams own three or more conference wins, and Williams said the team is fired up for the game and ready to turn its season around. Whether that will actually happen remains unknown until kickoff.
“We are kind of back at our underdog status; we need to pick it up and we’ve got the fight and the fire burning inside of us,” Williams said. “We still want to win. We are not out of it at all; we’re just ready for our upcoming games.”
The other unknown is who will be in net for Wisconsin. Junior Genevieve Richard made her debut on the field as a Badger against Ohio State. Redshirt senior Lauren Gunderson has started for UW in all other games, and Wilkins said she has not made a decision on which goaltender she will start Friday.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. at the McClimon Complex.