On Thursday afternoon, the Wisconsin Badgers women’s soccer team picked up a dominant win in a triumphant return to Madison, defeating Maryland 2-0. Both goals came quickly for the Badgers, who took the lead and then reinforced it in the opening ten minutes.
The first goal came in a slick team move, with senior Maia Cella picking up the ball and weaving past several Maryland defenders before sending in a perfectly weighted cross to the boot of Emma Jaskaniec. Jaskaniec, now the Badgers leading scorer on the year, made no mistake with her shot, powering a volley past Terrapin goalie Krista Varrichione. Just minutes later Wisconsin doubled their lead when Lauren Rice found the head of Cameron Murtha with a pinpoint cross.
Feels great to be back in Madison! Maia Cella dribbles past the Maryland backline and Emma Jaskaniec knocks in her third goal of the season! pic.twitter.com/1zjWYAD3fi— Wisconsin Soccer (@BadgerWSoccer) March 25, 2021
Rice, who returned to the lineup for her first start of the season on Thursday, wasted no time in showing the impact she has on the Badger attack. Slotting in as the second forward in Coach Paula Wilkins’ 4-2-2-2, the senior from Noblesville, Indiana brings both tactical acumen (with Wilkins assessing her knowledge of the game as one of her greatest strengths) as well as an unique technical skillset to the table. Particularly dangerous near the sidelines, Rice’s ability to either create danger from the wings or drive the ball through the center makes her a dynamic player and an excellent contrast to the target-striker profiles of her forward partners Claire Odmark and Cameron Murtha.
Aside from the return of Rice, the starting lineup for the Badgers was unchanged from the prior games, with a preferred XI finally established after some tweaks throughout the first matches. Wilkins’ plays with a “box” midfield (not dissimilar to the one preferred by North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley), with one pair of midfielders focused on creating chances and another pair behind them given more of a free-range role to patrol the midfield, disrupting opposition play and advancing the ball.
The Maryland match served as a perfect embodiment of the overwhelming presence the box can assert on a game. Isabelle Verdugo was a force, using her seemingly unlimited stamina to both win the ball back and then beat players off the dribble once the ball was won no matter where she was on the field. Cella served as the creative force, pulling the strings behind the attack with incisive passing and a remarkable ability to turn and drive into open space on the ball. The pair of attacking midfielders is made up of Emma Jaskaniec and Sophia Romine, both of whom are aggressive and talented players tasked with wrecking havoc and creating chances in the opposition third.
Though the lineup was dominant against the last-place Terrapins, it will face its biggest test yet when Rutgers visits McClimon on Sunday. The Scarlet Knights should make for an interesting, if incredibly challenging matchup for the Badgers. They’re equally defensively staunch- in fact both team have only conceded six goals, tied for the fewest in the conference.
But what makes Rutgers particularly scary is their attack, which features arguably the best striker in the collegiate game in Amirah Ali. The future Portland Thorn can find the back of the net from seemingly anywhere if given a sliver of space to strike the ball, making her very hard to mark. She’s also fed by a midfield containing freshman Sara Brocious, Samantha Kroeger, Becci Fluchel, and Julianne Leskauskas, who seem to grow with every game they play at the college level.
The Scarlet Knights have risen to the occasion in big games, with an impressive 3-0 record against the conference’s top half. All those games were at home, however, and they’ll head into their first major road test with a major chip on their shoulder. They dropped points with a tie against Nebraska yesterday, and they’ll have a point to prove with significant ground to make up behind new conference leaders, Penn State.
Wisconsin will enter the matchup at 5-3-1, hanging on for dear life to that all-important fourth spot in the conference. While a victory isn’t mathematically necessary for the Badgers, given how many teams are biting at their heels for fourth place (and Ohio State potentially set to overtake them outright if the Buckeyes can reschedule a postponed game), it’s all but a must-win if Wisconsin wants to continue to control their own destiny through the final day.
Only one thing is assured- with two games left on the Big Ten schedule, and as many as seven teams potentially in contention for third and fourth place in the standings, the conclusion to the season is set to be a treat.