It’s no secret that one of the toughest things in sports is winning on the road, but don’t tell that to the Wisconsin women’s soccer team.
So far this season, the Badgers, or “Road Warriors” as they’ve been dubbed by head coach Paula Wilkins, have excelled in the task, going 6-0-2 away from the McClimon Soccer Complex. The next test to see whether or not Wisconsin has mastered the fine art of winning away games come Saturday when the Badgers travel to battle Illinois.
The game against the Fighting Illini (6-5-2 overall, 1-3-1 Big Ten) is Wisconsin’s only game of the week, giving the Badgers (8-2-2, 3-1-1) a break from competition following their weekend split against No. 11 Penn State and Ohio State this past weekend.
Illinois also has Saturday’s matchup with Wisconsin as its only match of the week, but unlike Wisconsin, Illinois has not fared well lately, losing the last three games in a row.
But as Wilkins explained, the Fighting Illini’s record and recent streak isn’t indicative of how good a team they really are.
“They’re a little bit young and they have some injuries and I think they’re going to be getting some players back from injuries, so they’re not going to be what people have said about them in the past couple games,” Wilkins said. “I think once they’ve gotten healthy and organized once again, they’re going to be very good and very dangerous.”
One of the bigger factors in the recent losing skid for Illinois has been the absence of midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo, who Wilkins called “one of the best, if not the best, player in the Big Ten.” After appearing in the first nine games for the Fighting Illini, DiBernardo has not been in the lineup for the last four games, in which Illinois has finished 0-3-1.
It is unknown whether DiBernardo will return for Saturday’s game, but with someone who has played on various levels on U.S. National Teams, including the full national team, Wilkins stated she will develop her game plan as if DiBernardo will play.
“[DiBernardo] obviously has a huge influence on how they play and what they do, and so we will discuss that. And obviously we have tape on her before that. We’re going to prepare like they have all their players and they have a full complement so we can sort out any problems or issues they may give us,” Wilkins said.
Even without DiBernardo, Illinois has three very capable attackers, including the leading goal scorer in the Big Ten in Janelle Flaws. Through 13 games this season, Flaws has 13 goals, which ranks seventh nationally.
However, it’s not just Flaws who can tickle the twine, as 12 different players have scored at least one goal this season for the Illini and seven have scored two or more goals.
Wisconsin’s defense has been rather average throughout the season as the Badgers have allowed the sixth fewest goals in the Big Ten — 13 in 12 games.
With an average defense in comparison to the rest of the Big Ten teams, and after a split this past weekend, there is still room for improvements in the backline, freshman defender Kylie Schwarz said.
“I think we can be a little bit tighter on our defense. I think that we gave them [Ohio State and Penn State] some chances that maybe they didn’t deserve too much,” Schwarz said.
But it’s not just the back four that will play a crucial role in keeping the Illini off the scoreboard but the midfielders too, who will need to prevent Illinois’ attackers from getting the ball in finishing areas.
“We’re going to have to do a very good job, defensively, getting pressure on the ball to eliminate passes into their forwards. That’s when they become very dangerous. So if we do a good job in transition and eliminating their passes in there, I think we’ll be very successful,” Wilkins said.
The Big Ten standings are currently in a state of disarray — six teams are within three points of one another — making Saturday’s game critical for Wisconsin, which currently sits two points behind Penn State and Nebraska.
A win is basically necessary for the Road Warriors if they hope to go for the Big Ten title.
“Everyone has kind of taken points away from everyone, so I think we know this is going to be a really big game for us,” sophomore midfielder Kinley McNicoll said. “And from here on out, we realize we have to win all the rest of our games in order to be as successful as we want. So I think we’ve got a big game against Illinois and I think the team is up for it.”