Though it looked like the Wisconsin men’s soccer team was out of the Big Ten title race, a victory over Penn State Sunday could leave them as conference co-champions.
In order for the Badgers to come out on top, Northwestern will have to tie or lose their matchup with Michigan and Ohio State will have to fall on the road against Indiana. If both of those situations work out in favor of the Badgers and they can pick up a victory over the Nittany Lions, Wisconsin could then be named the unexpected co-champions of the Big Ten.
In a game that previously appeared as nothing more than a chance to gain momentum heading into the decisive Big Ten Tournament, UW now has plenty on the line in State College, Pa. In addition to their conference title hopes, a victory could help Wisconsin earn an NCAA tournament berth–one of the team’s primary goals all year.
“I know to a college student-athlete, having a share of the Big Ten title when the [preseason] coaches [poll] putting us No. 7 would be absolutely massive for these guys,” head coach John Trask said. “Plus, it’s a game that goes a long way in helping us possibly get in the NCAA tournament, so it’s an absolutely huge game.”
While the Badgers cannot lock up a No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament – Ohio State’s win over UW Sunday gave them sole control of the top seed – it’s clear that a win at Jeffrey Field could be indicative of how Wisconsin finishes the year.
On the offensive side of the ball, Penn State is led by a pair of juniors in forward Hasani Sinclair and forward/midfielder Julian Cardona. With seven points each, Sinclair and Cardona, along with midfielder/forward Minh Vu, form the foundation of the Nittany Lions’ attack.
After giving up two goals in each of their last two games, the Badger defense will not be able to focus on just one player Sunday. With five players with at least five points on Penn State’s roster, Colin Mani, David Caban and the rest of the Badgers ‘D’ will face another tough test in this critical matchup.
Despite their struggles against the Buckeyes’ attack in their last game, the coaching staff has kept practice and training sessions short as the Badgers head into the final stretch of the year. With several games in a short period in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, and potentially the NCAA tournament, the coaching staff is trying to make sure the team will be ready for the tough stretch ahead.
“I learned a long time ago, you’d like to work on 400 things after a loss, and you have to be intelligent,” Trask said. “The best thing we could do for these guys was to get them rested up and get them having a little bit of fun in practice, and that’s been the key. We’ve put in some good work; the guys have shown discipline and maturity.”
After not scoring a goal against the Buckeyes, getting the offense back in sync will be another key to Sunday’s game. Midfielder Tomislav Zadro and forwards Chris Prince and Josh Thiermann, who struggled to finish plays in front of the net against Ohio State, will have to convert their opportunities to keep their Big Ten title hopes alive against Penn State.
However, the Badgers saw a positive in all their missed opportunities against the Buckeyes, as it showed that they have the potential to score against the Big Ten’s best.
“[It’s motivating] because we had those chances, I mean some teams don’t even get those chances,” sophomore midfielder/forward Nick Janus said. “We had those, and if we put them away against Penn State then it’s going to be a whole different game.”
Scoring against the Nittany Lions will be no easy feat, as they are anchored by an athletic and experienced defense. Additionally, Penn State presents a skilled goalkeeper in freshman Andrew Wolverton, who has allowed just 11 goals in the 18 games he has started this year.
Though the Badgers need several things to work out in their favor to be named Big Ten co-champions, a win on the road is essential to setting the tone for the rest of the year.
“The biggest thing is just next Sunday we got to come out, and we got a big game out at Penn State, and we got to come out and we have to get a [winning] result,” senior defender Colin Mani said after the Ohio State game. “That’s the biggest thing we’ll be working on all week at training.”