This week of Big Ten women’s soccer brought both good news and bad news. The good: we got to see another week of hyper-competitive soccer where it’s become clear that first place is entirely up for grabs. On the other hand, however, nobody really has any clue what the conference hierarchy looks like. Without a clear ranking for every team discernible at this stage, I’ve divided the Big Ten’s 14 teams into four different tiers.
The Big Three:
One of these teams, barring a catastrophe, is going to win the title.
Penn State, by the thinnest of margins, likely remains the bettor’s favorite for the top spot at the end of the season. The Nittany Lions enjoyed an undefeated week, blanking Illinois 2-0 on the road before scraping out a strong 2-1 win against a very tough upstart Indiana team. Their pair of wins this week give the Blue and White a 3-1 record that’s good enough at present for first place, but their opening day loss against Rutgers could prove fatal if the race for the top spot comes down to the wire. The midfield/forward duo of Sam Coffey and Ally Schlegel have proven just as deadly as they were in 2019, with the pair combining for 15 points through just four games so far.
Nipping at Penn States’ heels, of course, is their (self-proclaimed) rivals to the east in Rutgers. Mike O’Neill’s side also went undefeated this week, taking down Purdue 1-0 on the road and surviving a brief scare from Michigan State. The Scarlet Knights suffered an early setback when Samantha Sklarski found the back of the net with a free kick for the Spartans right at the end of the first half on Thursday, but Rutgers rallied back in the second half behind goals from Amirah Ali and Nneka Moneme to win 3-1. Ali has continued to make her case for being the best collegiate striker this season, with three goals already. Behind her is a pair of freshmen quickly making names for themselves in their rookie campaign- both Sam Kroeger and Sara Brocious have both have two assists to their names already.
The third team currently tied atop the Big Ten standings is Wisconsin. The Badgers scored a major victory in their title quest on Monday when they topped Michigan on the road 1-0. They then kept their momentum heading into Thursday’s round of games, beating Illinois at “home” in Loves Park, Ill. The win over the Illini is the third game Wisconsin has won by a 1-0 scoreline, the mark of a team that’s mastered the art of direct, efficient, and defensive soccer. Jordyn Bloomer has provided all the Badgers could ask for and more in net, continuing to provide evidence to her argument for being the top goalie in the college game. Claire Shea, Isabelle Verdugo, and Macy Monticello have all been excellent at the back, and Emma Jaskaniec has stepped up and provided the firepower the Badgers need to contend.
These teams are all but locks for qualifying for the conference tournament, but remain on the outside looking in regarding the title race.
Fourth place in the standings is currently held by Ohio State, who have put together a very strong start to the season against a tough opening schedule. They only played one game this week, after their Sunday matchup against Nebraska was postponed out of “an abundance of caution for both teams,” but they took care of business in College Park by dispatching Maryland 3-1. The Buckeyes have a win against Wisconsin and a tie against Michigan, and though the latter is looking less and less impressive as the Wolverines fade from the title race that’s still as good of a resume as any in the conference. Sophomore Emma Sears has been white hot thus far, with four goals in just three games.
Indiana joins Ohio State as another team in the second tier that, while expected to be good, has still easily surpassed expectations so far in 2021. Though a slow start saw the Hoosiers fall to Northwestern in their first game, they bounced back quickly and made a statement last week with a big win over Rutgers in overtime. This week they comfortably topped Iowa 2-0, but agonizingly dropped a major chance to assert themselves in the Big Ten title race when they fell 2-1 to Penn State. Despite the scoreline, however, Indiana more than proved themselves in their showdown with the Nittany Lions, going toe to toe with one of the nation’s best teams. Seniority has been crucial so far for the Hoosiers- forward Melanie Forbes has powered the team with goals in each of their first three games, while goalkeeper Bethany Kopel has been excellent between the pipes.
Rounding out the second tier is a more disappointing inclusion- Michigan. Billed to be a strong contender for first place at the start of the season, the Wolverines have faltered in the opening stage of the 2021 campaign so far. With just one win over Minnesota to their name so far this spring, the Maize and Blue once again came up short this week, losing a pivotal home showdown with Wisconsin and then tying lowly Iowa 0-0. Even with Canadian international and top playmaker Sarah Stratigakis back on the pitch, Michigan has only three goals on the year as a team, and hasn’t scored since February. Jade Riviere is still being worked back into the starting lineup and will be a major boost once fully ready, but the Wolverines have lost a potentially insurmountable amount of ground in the opening stages of the title race.
The Middle of the Pack
These are the teams that look to be fighting for the final few qualification spots for the conference tournament.
It’s been extremely difficult to get a bead on Northwestern this season. After returning every major contributor from a lukewarm 2019 season and bringing in a strong recruiting class, the Wildcats were expected to take a step forward this season. They’ve indeed done so- but in a maddeningly inconsistent fashion. The ‘Cats opened their season with an upset 1-0 victory over a strong Indiana team, before getting beat soundly by Penn State 4-1 (though they did have a very brief lead). This week has been a terrific microcosm of such inconsistencies- after asserting their status as an improved team with a win over Maryland on Sunday, NU turned around and dropped a contest with Minnesota. Losing to the Gophers isn’t an abhorrent loss by any means, but it’s a game that one would expect the Wildcats to win if they’re to challenge for a solid Big Ten tournament seed. One bright spot has been freshman Josie Aulicino, who leads the team in points and has been an instant starter in the center of the park. Another rookie to keep an eye on is Ella Hase: the first-year is yet to register a goal or an assist, but has clearly earned the trust of coach Michael Moynihan, playing every minute of every game thus far.
Illinois is another team that looks a solid bet to round out the middle of the pack for the Big Ten this spring. They’ve most recently endured a rough two loss week, dropping contests to Penn State and Wisconsin, but given the caliber of their opponents a pair of defeats is plenty fair. The more important stat is how well they’ve done against other programs in the middle of the standings- they opened their season 2-0 with wins over Purdue and Iowa. It won’t set the world on fire, but those are the games any team needs to win if they want to be one of the eight teams that qualifies for the conference tournament. A strong defense has been crucial for the Illini so far- Aleah Treiterer and Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal have both played every minute this season, along with goalkeeper Sami Sample. The team’s leading scorer, Kendra Pasquale, is also a defender.
Minnesota has surged into contention for a low seed in the Big Ten tournament in the last week, enjoying a two game win streak. The Golden Gophers dispatched Michigan State on Monday before taking down Northwestern 2-1 to close out a strong week for the program. Minnesota has one of the tougher schedules left to face before they close out the year- still needing to face all of Penn State, Rutgers, and Wisconsin- but they do end the season on a three game home stand. At a 2-1-1 mark so far, it would be foolish to count out the Gophers for a conference tournament berth. Watch out for midfielder Katie Duong (two assists on the season), as well as substitute spark plug Sadie Harper (two goals.)
Nebraska is one of only two teams in the conference to only have three games under their belt this season, but they’ve established themselves as a solid side regardless. The Cornhuskers won their only game this week 1-0 against Purdue, and also have a tie with Minnesota on their resume. They too face a gauntlet to close the season, with the aforementioned Big Three all on the schedule, as well as a postponed visit from Michigan still looming. And while they’ve only scored twice this season, both have come off the boot of rookie Elanor Dale, who arrives from England with a strong youth pedigree. Senior defender Grace Brown leads all field players in minutes, brings a great slate of experience at the back as well.
Rounding out the third tier is Michigan State, who suffered a rough week but still have some strong performances on their resume. On Sunday the Spartans fell 1-0 to Minnesota, and then dropped a rough away game in New Jersey to Rutgers on Thursday. Michigan State actually led the Big Ten title contenders at halftime, following a well-executed free kick routine, but eventually fell to the Scarlet Knights’ firepower and conceded three goals in the second half. The Spartans have spread out their scoring well thus far, with no player having more than a single goal. Their source of creativity, though, is clear- Danielle Stephan has three assists (no other player has registered one).
Try to Spoil Someone Else’s Season
While they’re not eliminated yet, these teams have quickly found themselves in the cellar of the standings after just a few weeks.
The only team in the final tier with a win, Purdue suffered a pair of tough defeats this week. They kept Rutgers within striking distance at home in West Lafayette, but were unable to ever notch an equalizing goal. They then traveled to Lincoln to take on Nebraska on Thursday, where they managed to find the back of the net after going down 2-0, but at the end of the match were unable to complete the comeback. The Boilermakers do have a 3-2 double overtime victory over Maryland, and only have to face Wisconsin out of the top three teams in their final stretch of matches, so there’s certainly hope for a future move up in the standings. If such a move comes though, look for it to be powered by versatile freshman Nicole Kevdzija- the rookie has started every game so far this season and leads the team in points with a goal and an assist.
Iowa nearly registered a massive upset in their first game when they struck the crossbar in the final seconds of a clash with Wisconsin. Since then, it’s all gone downhill. The Hawkeyes are still yet to score a goal- though this week they managed to eek out a 0-0 draw with Michigan to go alongside a 2-0 loss to Indiana. Monica Wilhem has chalked up a solid 15 saves on the season, and has been pivotal in keeping the Hawkeyes competitive in two of their hardest games thus far.
Maryland is the final team in the final tier, and it’s not without reason. The Terrapins have conceded more goals (eight) than any other team in the conference, and only have four of their own to their credit. Following a draw with Michigan State to start the season, Maryland has lost three straight. This week they lost a road game to Northwestern, before getting beat 3-1 by Ohio State. The schedule doesn’t get easier from here either- five of the Terrapins final seven games are in the top two tiers. A bright spot has been three year starter Malikae Dayes, who’s supplied a goal and an assist from defense.