In a season full of single-goal leads for the Wisconsin men’s soccer team, the pressure rarely lets up for a defense often tasked with keeping the tying or winning goal out of its net.
After giving up late goals early in the year against Virginia, California-Irvine and Memphis, the Badgers’ defensive unit has proven that it can close out victories in its more recent matchups, and UW’s record has improved accordingly.
Despite showing weaknesses early on, the Wisconsin defense has shown resiliency and looks like a much more intimidating unit than it did in early September. Much like the growing relationship on the offensive side of the ball between Chris Prince, Tomislav Zadro and Joey Tennyson, the defenders’ understanding of each other’s games is reflected in their performance on the field.
Anchored by the veteran leadership of fifth-year senior defender Colin Mani, along with standout younger players in sophomore Paul Yonga and AJ Cochran, the Badgers’ versatile D has developed a sense of chemistry that is increasingly apparent in conference play.
Featuring six different players that regularly line up in the backfield, the defenders are still adapting to and building around each other’s games.
“Every game we get with that group playing together – the organization, the communication, the decision-making – all those little bits that make a good defense, continues to get better,” head coach John Trask said. “Every minute, we’ve got to continue that relationship between [the defenders].”
The Badgers’ defense usually features Mani, Yonga, Cochran and Trevor Wheeler, but between injuries and moving players around the field, Kyle McCrudden and Arnel Zahirovic have seen significant playing time as defenders.
While their improvement over the season can be partially credited to the developing relationship between the players, the return of Cochran clearly provided a major boost for the Badgers. After going down with a concussion and missing several games, the freshman has made a major and immediate impact for UW.
Known for his physicality and ability to thwart an opposing attack with his skills in the air, Cochran has added a new dimension to the Wisconsin defense.
“He’s one of the best freshman in the nation, I’d say,” Yonga said. “I mean, he dominates the air ball – I haven’t seen anyone win more air balls than him, and it’s just huge to have him back there to help us out.”
In addition to Cochran, Yonga and Wheeler have demonstrated tremendous maturity since their freshman seasons and even over the course of the 2011 season. Though there are few statistics to measure the individual impact of defensive players, it’s clear that the great amount of playing time both players saw in their first year is paying off.
Recently pitching a shutout against a then sixth-ranked Indiana squad, the Badgers also showed their formidable defense in a tough road win over Michigan Sunday. The UW defense surrendered a goal to the Wolverines early on in the second period but was able to preserve the lead and prove that its improved play was not simply a result of the lengthy homestand.
Additionally, Mani, Yonga and Wheeler all spent much of their previous careers suiting up on the offensive side of the ball as midfielders and are still getting comfortable in the backfield. While Cochran has always been a defender, the trios of older players are still settling in at their new position as they simultaneously become comfortable with each other’s games.
“Me playing back there, I was the oldest one, and I’m not even a natural defender; I’m a natural midfielder,” Mani said. “I think AJ is the only natural defender that we have back there. Paul and Trevor, all of us were just kind of getting used to the roles and getting accustomed to playing it together.”
Although the Badgers lack significant experience in the backfield, Mani says their versatility puts them at an advantage in working with the offense. As former midfielders, the UW defense communicates well with the offensive unit and knows where it wants the ball.
A very aggressive unit that uses its size – particularly the imposing 6-foot-3, 195 pound frame of Cochran – to its advantage, the Badgers’ physicality is evident in nearly every game. As seems to be the case with every sport in the conference, Big Ten soccer is known for low scores and physicality, and the Wisconsin defense is a prime example of that reputation.
With 134 fouls on the year, Mani and his fellow defensive standouts aren’t afraid to use their size and aggressiveness to slow down the opposing offense. Well beyond the halfway mark of their season, the Badgers’ defense looks like it can only get better as it continues to close out the top squads in the Big Ten.
“The Big Ten is based off of big guys playing hard, so we definitely have to be able to compete in the air and win the 50-50 balls; that’s definitely what we take pride in,” Yonga said. “We also have good attackers with skills, so we know if we stay strong and big in the back our attackers can get us some goals.”