The University of Wisconsin men’s soccer team entered Saturday’s game against conference opponent Penn State looking for positives to take into the Big Ten tournament, which they must win in order to secure a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Although the Badgers never quit on the match, the game was never as close as the final scoreline, with the Nittany Lions claiming a 2–1 victory to remain perfect on the road in 2019.

Penn State (8-2-2, 4-1-1 Big Ten) jumped on the Badgers from the kickoff, winning the time of possession battle and drawing more shot opportunities than Wisconsin (2-10-2, 0-4-1) could manage. The first half was highlighted by Nittany Lions’ freshman Jalen Watson, who placed a perfect cross through the back line of the Badgers and allowed junior Callum Pritchatt to put the visitors up 1–0 in the 14th-minute of action.

Wisconsin mounted a challenge late in the first period to equalize and salvage what had been a rough 45 minutes of play, but Penn State goalie Kris Shakes managed two diving saves to match Wisconsin goalie Dean Cowdroy’s relentless production in the opposite net.

With the Badgers scoreless at the break and their best attacking opportunities likely behind them, consistent pressure was required to grind out a game-tying response.

Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions reacted to the shift in offensive intensity brought by Wisconsin, and jumped to a two-goal lead in the 65th minute courtesy of Aaron Malloy’s strike from outside the box, prompted by yet another Penn State corner. Sitting with a two-goal deficit, the Badgers finally generated a convincing chance in the 79th minute, which led to a goal from freshman Iñaki Iribarren just moments later.

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Down 2–1, Wisconsin continued to push Penn State onto the defense, but the Nittany Lions remained in the lead for the final ten minutes, coming away with a reasonably comfortable victory. It was the case of too little, too late for Wisconsin, which played much better in the second half and challenged the conference leaders to the bitter end.

As the Badgers now prepare to take on the Michigan Wolverines, this defeat represents a metaphor for the season as a whole. Wisconsin has shown flashes of its indisputable offensive potential throughout the year, but time and time again it evades them when they need it most. The failure to generate a substantial amount of chances has dramatized the importance of efficiency, and the Badgers have been less than clinical on their limited opportunities at the goal.

The Big Ten is an unforgiving conference — regardless of the sport — and success depends upon consistency and execution. As of now, the flashes of brilliance and Dean Cowdroy’s stern defense of goal have failed to translate into wins.

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With three games to play before the Big Ten Quarterfinals, the focus for Wisconsin should be on attempting to string together performances where the attackers, midfielders and defenders are consistent in their role, and sound when given the chance to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses.

Team chemistry, communication and efficiency are three keys to a deep run in the remaining conference matchups and might be the Badgers’ only shot at a bid for the NCAA tournament.

The Badgers take on Michigan in Ann Arbor Friday at 5 p.m.