As the leaves turn into varying shades of orange, red and yellow and snow flurries grace the sky in Madison, it’s becoming clear the fall sports season is in its final stages. But even as those sports wind down, the competition is only increasing.
The Wisconsin women’s soccer team is no exception, as the Badgers are right in the thick of the Big Ten standings and, more importantly, in the picture for an NCAA tournament berth.
The first of the remaining tests left on the Badgers’ schedule kicks off Thursday at the McClimon Soccer Complex as Wisconsin (9-4-2 overall, 4-3-1 Big Ten) hosts its Border Battle rival Minnesota (9-5-2, 2-4-2).
After a split this past weekend – a 2-1 double overtime loss to Nebraska last Friday and a 2-1 win over Iowa Sunday – the Badgers still have to improve on weaknesses going forward against Minnesota and future opponents.
“I think we need to be a lot more consistent when we have the ball, as far as keeping it. We gave the ball away in spots that we shouldn’t have. I think, ultimately, that hurt us on transition,” sophomore midfielder McKenna Meuer said. “And if we eliminate the simple mistakes, we’ll have a lot of success.”
Minnesota, meanwhile, comes into Thursday’s game having lost two of its last three matchups. Despite the recent downturn for the Gophers, they have still managed to knock off two of the Big Ten’s best teams, third-place Penn State and second-place Michigan.
“They’ve played some big games and won some big games against Penn State and Michigan,” head coach Paula Wilkins said. “They’re going to be really organized. They get numbers behind the ball. They’re dangerous on the counterattack, and I think that’s what we’re really going to have to pay attention too.”
Wilkins considers that counterattack of the Gophers to be their most dangerous aspect, and one of the biggest focuses she has going into the Border Battle.
“I think their three frontrunners are very good. I think their midfield works really hard and I think we have to figure out a way to break down their defense. Their goalkeeper has had some great games, some great saves and I think we’re really going to have to focus on our attack to be able to break them down,” Wilkins said.
The Wisconsin attack could prove critical as Minnesota is hardly a prolific offensive team, averaging only a little bit more than one goal a game at an average of 1.38 goals per game. But Wilkins noted the fact that, although Minnesota may not score a lot, it takes advantage of the opportunities is does get.
Still, the Golden Gophers are second to last in the Big Ten in goals scored with 22, relying on the second best defense in the conference, yielding only 15 goals in 16 games.
With an air-tight defense, it is no wonder the counter-attack is a big part of the Minnesota offensive game. Keeping this in mind, Badger midfielder Kinley McNicoll elaborated on just how she and her Badger teammates can hold the Minnesota attack at bay.
“We can’t let them serve the long balls, so I think if we cut off that service then our backs are going to have a field day back there. It’s a game, so balls are going to get behind, so we just got to make sure that we are dropping early,” McNicoll said.
Minnesota has struggled on the road this year, going 3-4-1 away from Minneapolis while losing to the two teams – Michigan State and Northwestern – below it in the standings. But oddly enough the Gophers’ biggest win of the season against Michigan came on the road. Needless to say, Minnesota has been quite inconsistent. But regardless of records and statistics, Minnesota is still a very quality team and the intangibles of the Border Battle rivalry will undoubtedly keep the game close.
“[The] Border Battle is never underestimated. You never want to lose to your arch-rival. It’s the biggest rivalry we have. Growing up here…you never want to lose to Minnesota. I know that we’re motivated 100 percent to win this game for sure,” Meuer said.
With a win, Wisconsin would keep tabs on fourth place in the conference behind Nebraska, Michigan and Penn State and further their postseason hopes as tournament time draws ever nearer.