In what is arguably the biggest game in head coach Kalekeni Banda’s five-year tenure at the University of Wisconsin, the men’s soccer team plays host to archrival Michigan this morning at 11:00 a.m. at the McClimon Track and Soccer Complex.

Why is there is so much pressure on this game? First of all, since Banda took over the men’s soccer program in 1997, it has slowly but steadily improved. Advancing to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament would definitely show that improvement.

Second, the Badgers are 0-4 under Banda in Big Ten tournament games. Last season, they lost a heartbreaking opening round match to Ohio State 2-1. The Buckeyes hosted last year’s tournament and ended up winning the championship ? which brings up the last and most important point.

Wisconsin is hosting the tournament this year. Not only is this is a great way to showcase the program, it also would be great to break the tournament losing streak in front of the home fans. Banda realizes how important hosting this tournament is.

“When I first realized we had a chance to host, I decided this is the year to put a stamp on the program and for me to turn things around,” he said. “To have the tournament here will be tremendous for our program.”

How important this tournament ends up being to the men’s soccer team starts this morning. They face No. 5 seed Michigan, which has already defeated them once this season, 2-1 in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines (9-6-1 overall, 3-3-0 in the Big Ten) are in just their second season as a Big Ten soccer program. They have made great strides this season with only three seniors on the roster and want to use this tournament to show how far their program has developed.

However, No. 4 seed Wisconsin (10-9-1 overall, 3-3-0 in the Big Ten) is still a definitive favorite. Besides having the home field advantage (6-2-1 at McClimon), the Badgers simply have more impact players. Two seniors lead the way, as they have all season long.

Forward Dominic DaPra led the Badgers with 15 goals and added four assists for 34 points. His teammate, forward Aaron Lauber, who originally came to the program as a walk-on, added 11 goals. These two form one of the best one-two punches in the Big Ten, or as Banda calls them, his two-headed monster.

“I am not going to lie to you. He [DaPra] has been a godsend to me, a very quality player,” Banda said. “Lauber is a hard worker that has gotten a lot of goals for us.”

However, the emergence of two young players might be the key as to how far UW will go in this tournament. The freshman duo of David Martinez and Nick Van Sicklen have become integral parts of the offense in recent weeks, rising up to third and fourth on the team in points scored with 12 and 10, respectively.

The biggest concern for Wisconsin going into the tournament is the health of senior goalkeeper Moriba Baker. He hurt his quadriceps muscle in last Sunday’s 1-0 win over Ohio State. Although backup goalkeeper Phil Ayoub played well in relief, the team is considerably better with Baker in the lineup.

Whoever plays in goal for Wisconsin, the defense as a whole, led by senior Scott Repa, will need to pick up the slack. Although Michigan is a relatively low scoring team, they have won many close games and that is very important at tournament time.

Both teams come into this game playing their best soccer of the season. Michigan defeated Ohio State on the road in their last game, 1-0. Wisconsin won their last three games of the season, all conference games, to finish .500 in the Big Ten.

If the Badgers get by Michigan, they will face the No. 1 seed and tournament favorite Indiana on Friday afternoon. Indiana defeated Wisconsin 4-0 earlier in the season.

But first things first. Simply put, a win over Michigan today would be a humongous step in the right direction for the Wisconsin men’s soccer team.

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