Even as the rain came down in droves Wednesday night, no amount of water could put out the fires of competition and urgency in the Wisconsin men’s soccer team.
With only five games remaining on Wisconsin’s regular season schedule before the night began, defender Paul Yonga and the rest of the Badgers knew they had to start stringing together some wins to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid. And that’s exactly what UW (5-6-3, 1-2-0 Big Ten) did, as it toppled UW-Green Bay (2-9-3, 0-3-2 Horizon) 3-0 at the McClimon Soccer Complex.
“We want to keep building momentum as we get into our last three games of the Big Ten and also going into the Big Ten tournament,” Yonga said. “So it’s big for us to get our first two-game win streak, and hopefully we can keep it going into Michigan State this weekend.”
So far this season, Wisconsin has had trouble playing consistently and building off momentum, so Wednesday night’s game was crucial in that the Badgers developed their first winning streak of the year.
A big part of that victory was the Wisconsin defense, which controlled the ball for a large portion of the game and limited the Phoenix to only four shots on goal. That Badger defense has been the focus of coach John Trask’s game plan, making sure his team is strong in the back before worrying about transitioning upfield on offense. And not only was Wisconsin strong in the back, but it also recorded the shutout.
“All around I think we just did what we knew what we had to do,” Yonga said. “[That’s] what we’ve been working on for the last couple weeks, trying to keep our line tight in the back. Today it was good to get a victory and a shutout.”
Defense is the best offense
Although Wisconsin had a defense-first approach to the game and earned the shutout, the offense also put on a show Wednesday night, recording the most goals in a game since the first game of the season against Memphis.
But it was the defense that played a critical role by jump-starting the offense and providing quality looks for Chris Prince and the rest of the Badgers’ forwards.
“We’re not really an offensive mindset team,” Prince said. “We’re more of a defense first, strong at the back and even defensive in the attacking third, and that’s what helps us lead to our good attack. I think that really helped us out today.”
Throughout the course of the game, Trask experimented with his lineup, the most notable of these changes being the usual defender Yonga starting in the midfield. Trask placed Yonga there to help set the tone early with his energy and ability to win balls, which proved to be important when the Badgers struck for the first goal 25 minutes into the game.
Having the lead for the entire game allowed Trask to move Yonga and other players around in the hope of finding a lineup pattern that will be successful the rest of the year. This rotation of players in different positions included defender Kyle McCrudden, who played several positions on the defensive backline for the Badgers over the course of the game.
Ultimately, Trask discovered a look he likes with Yonga in the midfield and McCrudden on defense, one he believes will lead to even more success for the defense in the critical games that remain for Wisconsin.
“We got [McCrudden] back in late, too, and moved Paul back up [to the midfield], so we like that look,” Trask said. “It seems to make us a little bit more dominant in that middle to midfield and we’re still stout in the back.”
More importantly, that defensive look was able to secure a shutout and help a struggling offense find the back of the net. And in an in-state rivalry game and a must-win situation, the Badgers could not have asked for a better time for the offense and defense to hit their strides simultaneously.
The Badgers’ success on both sides of the ball was due in large part to the seniors stepping up and recognizing their time is quickly fading. On Wednesday night, McCrudden’s solid defensive play and forward Jerry Maddi’s goal and assist were the senior performances that guided Wisconsin to victory.
“Sometimes when seniors realize that it’s getting close to the end they find something in themselves,” Trask said.
Aided by a few key seniors and air-tight defensive play, Wisconsin kept its hopes alive for a postseason berth.