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Your Complete 2021 Big Ten Women’s Soccer Preview, Part 1

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The Badgers start their season on Thursday and we’ve got a four-part deep dive into the entire Big Ten conference coming at ya!

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The sun is in the sky, burgers are on the grill, and the Mets are entering a mid-season collapse. It’s that wonderful time of year we call summer again. And summer means only one thing: it’s time to hit the beach film room to discuss the impending Big Ten soccer season!

With pre-seasons around the midwest well underway, I figured it’s time for me to unleash this behemoth of a Big Ten women’s soccer primer on the world. In here you’ll find previews of every team in the conference- from summaries of last season to key players for the next, this article is your comprehensive guide to anything you might want to know about the best soccer conference in the country.*

For the sake of only allowing complaints about my own predictions to anyone who actually managed to read of this nearly 12,000 word monstrosity over the next four days, I’ve divided up the team previews by rough geographic region. My personal prediction for the conference standings will be at the end of the fourth post on Thursday. Today’s post will be the easternmost teams in the conference, Maryland, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers.

And with that, let’s break down some Big Ten soccer!

*do not fact check this with anyone but me

Maryland

Falling from sixth place in 2019 to the cellar in 2020, Maryland will look to get back on track in the lengthened fall season.

The only winless team in the Big Ten in 2020, there wasn’t much that went right for the Terrapins in the spring. They kept on a large amount of the core of a 2019 team that was a competitive squad in a deep Big Ten. There were no coaching changes that would have caused significant shifts in personnel or tactics. But injuries struck, and nothing clicked in a constantly shifting lineup. Unsurprisingly, the wins never came, and Maryland ended the year a comfortable last place.

2021 is set to be a pivotal year for the Terrapins. Though they lose team leader in minutes Sydney Staier to Indiana, the team once again retains a significant amount of contributors from the last two seasons, and will be looking to rediscover the form that took them to the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals in 2019. The position to watch will almost certainly be goalkeeper- after losing 2019 starter Erin Seppi, the #1 spot between the pipes was in flux all spring. Four different goalkeepers saw minutes for Maryland in 2020, and the team conceded a conference-worst 29 goals. At a rate of 2.42 opposition goals per game, the drop off from 1.65 oGPG the season before was noticeable. Whether any one ‘keeper can step up and claim the job for themselves will be essential to Maryland returning to competitiveness.

MVP: Alyssa Poarch

Maryland’s goal scoring total outpaced their final standing last year (as the Terrapins finished 11th in goals per game), and Poarch was a key part of that attack. Poarch led the team in both goals and points for the second straight season in the spring (adding a goal and assist to her total of eight goals and three assists accumulated in 2019), and it’s a safe bet she’ll be adding to her account further in her final year with the Terps.

Key Players: Keyera Wynn, Loren Sefcik, Malikae Dayes

Keyera Wynn: Accompanying Poarch in the attack will likely be junior forward Keyera Wynn, who also notched two goals and an assist during the 2020 spring season. Putting up team-high points numbers while coming off the bench in half the game she appeared in is no easy task, and it wouldn’t be surprising if her numbers and minutes increase in tandem this coming fall.

Loren Sefcik: The team’s second returning leader in minutes, Sefcik offers a veteran presence as a three year starter in the center of the park for the Terrapins. With Staier departing from the midfield, Sefcik is set for an even bigger role as a senior leader in a position where Maryland won’t be returning a single player that registered more than 800 total minutes last season.

Malikae Dayes: A major boost to the defense, Dayes’ absence due to injury in 2020 was a major reason why the Terps goals against numbers took a major hit from the last season in which she was fully fit. She led the team in minutes in 2019 and is set to be an important piece in the squads’ improved fall backline.

Breakout watch: Catherine DeRosa

One of just two players to appear in all 12 games in 2020, the sophomore midfielder enjoyed a very solid rookie season despite the constant changes in the lineup that seemed to occur all season. With Staier (the only midfielder who started every game they appeared in) out of the picture, DeRosa’s role is set to only grow bigger in 2021.

Penn State

The Nittany Lions will head into the fall with plenty of weapons looking for vengeance after their dominant regular season/tournament double title run was thwarted

Penn State was a wagon throughout the regular season last year. Featuring a freewheeling offense with all three of the conference’s top three point getters, the Nittany Lions scored at will. Pair that with a sturdy backline that only conceded 11 goals, and the defending B1G tournament champs stomped their way to a regular season title, not losing a single game after an opening day defeat against Rutgers. But in the 2020 tournament, things didn’t go as they did in 2019. After a comfortable quarterfinal win against Indiana, Penn State’s unstoppable force ran into the immovable object that was Iowa this April. Even after the Hawkeyes went down a man following a red card, try as they might, the Blue and White couldn’t force their way through on home territory and were eliminated. In the NCAA tournament, things went better. Surprisingly forced to play in the preliminary rounds, the Lions disproved any doubts about a run of poor form by crushing Alabama State 5-0. They then dispatched Vanderbilt 2-0, before falling to No. 1 overall seed and eventual national finalists Florida State.

Penn State comes back just as loaded for the fall as they were in the spring. Future Portland Thorn Sam Coffey and Ally Schlegel make up one of the most statistically impressive duos college soccer has seen in recent years, and they’re both back to terrorize the Big Ten again in 2021. Eva Alonso will anchor the backline, as the only defender to have started every game last season, and Cori Dyke, Payton Linnehan, and Maddie Myers should both play a large role in supplementing the Nittany Lion midfield and attack. But perhaps the biggest story of all in University Park for the fall is the departure of Frankie Tagliaferri. The New Jersey native opted to transfer back to her home state to spend her fifth year at rival Rutgers, and her loss will be a big one for this Penn State team. A day-in and day-out fixture beside Coffey, Tagliaferri’s departure leaves the Lions without 29 points of production and a key leader in the center of the park.

MVP: Sam Coffey

Somehow still one of the more underrated players in the country, Coffey has been filling up stat sheets for four years now. An impressive attacking midfielder who has scored and assisted at torrid rates since the start of her collegiate career in Boston College, the All-American is the dynamo that pulls the strings in the Penn State attack. She’s a leader on and off the pitch for the Nittany Lions as well, serving as captain and the team’s penalty kick taker.

Key Players: Ally Schlegel, Eva Alonso, Payton Linnehan

Choosing between Ally Schlegel and Coffey for team MVP is the definition of a good problem to have. I elected to give it to Coffey due to seniority, but make no mistake, Schlegel is one of the best strikers in both the conference and country. The numbers speak for themselves- 61 points as an underclassman is almost unheard of, and she’s still improving too. She put up 1.32 points per game as a freshman, and improved that mark to 1.75 in the spring. It’s unlikely she’ll continue that level of increased production, but it’s not out of the question that she could put up an 40/50 point season that would put her in contention to lead the nation.

Eva Alonso: The young Spainard anchored the Nittany Lion backline to much aplomb in the spring, and will likely continue her growth in 2021. Named to both the all-freshman team and all-conference first team, Alonso is a tough defender in close quarters whose presence on the game is far greater than her 5-foot-5 frame. She’ll be a major part of any success Penn State finds as she emerges from talented freshman to backline leader in a Lion defense that will likely be experiencing some transition

Payton Linnehan: An option in both the midfield and attack for Coach Erica Dambach, Linnehan heads into her junior season primed to fill the shoes of Tagliaferri as Penn State’s third prolific scoring threat. The Massachusetts native enjoyed a productive underclassmen campaign in State College, posting eleven goals and nine assists in just two years. The rising junior is surrounded by elite weapons, and no doubt has the inside track to become the third prong of the Nittany Lions “Big Three” they’ve established over the last few years.

Breakout watch: Jilly Shimkin

As has been a common theme in this preview, the question of how to replace Frankie Tagliaferri will be an important one for Penn State to answer if they hope to successfully defend their regular season title. Jilly Shimkin might be that answer. It’s a large weight on a player who’s just an incoming freshman, but over the years coach Dambach has shown a willingness to let young players who are ready for the spotlight shine regardless of age.

Just last year, first years Eva Alonso and Ellie Wheeler started every game. Shimkin heads to State College as one of just nine “five star” recruits (per topdrawersoccer.com) in the class of 2021. With extensive DA and USYNT experience and accolades, her resume heading into her collegiate career is as good as any. She’ll likely get plenty of chances to step right into the fire and prove herself in Big Ten play.

Ohio State

Ohio State lit up scoreboards in the spring, and only fell to eventual national champions Santa Clara in the national tournament. They’ll be looking to show last years’ title contention is the new norm in Columbus

Somewhat quietly Ohio State enjoyed a one-loss regular season last year, a feat that only Penn State managed. Ultimately they weren’t the buzzsaw that the Nittany Lions were in the spring- as their three draws kept them firmly behind a Penn State team that lost just once and had their only tie come against the Buckeyes- but their consistent performances were good enough for second place in the conference. Unfortunately, the changed conference tournament format did no favors for OSU- as the Buckeyes drew an unfortunate quarterfinal matchup with a dangerous Rutgers team that pulled off a late upset. Securing an NCAA tournament bid, Ohio State would go on to demolish Stony Brook 5-1 before falling to future national champions Santa Clara 4-1.

As is a common theme across the conference and nation due to the extra year of eligibility granted to seniors because of COVID, the Buckeyes are retaining a significant amount of their core from last season. Up front, 2020 Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year Peyton McNamara joins all-conference seniors Kayla Fischer (first team) and junior Emma Sears (second team), completing a trio that combined for an impressive 46 points over the spring season. Izzy Rodriguez will anchor the backline, fresh off a stellar 2020 campaign that saw her win Defender of the Year for the conference. The loss of All Big Ten Third Team midfielder Alyssa Baumbick will be an unfortunate one in Columbus, but Duncan Brittany and Kine Flotre are both back and ready to headline the midfield corps.

MVP: Izzy Rodriguez

As the saying goes, defense wins championships, and there are few better defenders in college than Izzy Rodriguez. In fact, the coaches of the Big Ten voted last year that there was no better in the conference as she was named Defender of the Year. A three year captain and five year starter, there’s little doubt that Rodriguez will play an absolutely vital role in the Buckeye’s backline this season. She’ll have to do quite a bit of work in that role as well, as Ohio State allowed 17 goals last season, good for third worst in the Big Ten.

Key Players: Emma Sears, Kayla Fischer, Peyton McNamara

Emma Sears: Only Penn State scored more goals than the Buckeyes last season in the Big Ten, and a major part of OSU’s electric offense was Sears. Posting 17 points on seven goals and three assists, the junior out of Dublin, Ohio was a stat machine over the spring. No player on any team on any team but Penn State put up more points than Sears in 2020, and you can bet she’ll be gunning to overtake the Nittany Lion trio in front of her come 2021.

Kayla Fischer: Partnering up with Sears up top is a first team all-Big Ten level attacker in Kayla Fischer. Fischer proved valuable as both a scorer (five goals) and creator (four assists) across the spring, and was second in the entire B1G in total shots taken. With this fall being her last undergraduate season and final chance to make an impression on pro scouts, expect big things from the senior.

Peyton McNamara: Supplementing the attack even further for the Buckeyes will be the co-Big Ten Freshman of the Year McNamara. An explosive rookie campaign saw the sophomore from Connecticut post six goals and three assists, and her efforts were rewarded with a call-up to train with the Jamaican national team before the squad’s summer friendlies. The Reggae Girlz looking to get McNamara into the fold this early on in her young career is testament to just how high her ceiling is, and she’ll be a player to watch both in 2021 and the years to come.

Breakout watch: Brittany Duncan

This is admittedly something of a cheat pick, since Brittany Duncan is already by any definition well-established as a fixture in the Ohio State lineup. But since the key players section covered just how prolific their attack was, it felt unjust to not give plaudits to the midfield as well. Duncan was a major creative force for the Buckeyes’ notching five assists, tied for the team lead alongside senior Marissa Birzon.

Rutgers

Adding a nationally-ranked 2021 class to a young roster that was the only Big Ten team to take down Penn State in the regular season last year, will Amirah Ali’s last ride be the Scarlet Knights’ best shot at a first B1G tournament title yet?

A staple contender for the conference crown, 2020 was another very solid year for the conferences’ easternmost team. The Scarlet Knights set the tempo in the title chase with a thrilling 3-2 shootout win over Penn State on opening day, and remained in the thick of the race until the home stretch, but a draw with Nebraska in Lincoln and a loss to Wisconsin in Madison ensured that the Nittany Lions eventually pulled away for the regular season championship. Rutgers would then go on to put together an admirable Big Ten tournament run, but were felled by Wisconsin once again in the semi-finals. After qualifying for the NCAA tournament, the Scarlet Knights were able to advance to the second round before dropping a heartbreaking penalty kick shootout loss to Clemson.

The good news for Rutgers heading into the fall is the team that performed so well over the spring was also one of the youngest teams in the conference. The Scarlet Knights will return their entire starting XI and almost half of Coach Mike O’Neill’s preferred lineup were freshmen. Fullback Emma Misal, midfielders Becci Fluchel and Sam Kroeger, and forward Sara Brocious are all set to take major steps forward in 2021.

The other major boost for the Scarlet Knights is the arrival of Frankie Tagliaferri as a graduate transfer. An industrious midfielder who was a major reason why Penn State was often almost unbeatable in the center of the park last year, Tagliaferri brings an almost half-decade of collegiate experience a young Rutgers midfield would benefit from, as well as the technical quality to break games wide open.

MVP: Amirah Ali

No profile of Rutgers women’s soccer is complete without a heavy focus on Amirah Ali. Ali has finished either first or second on the roster in goals during every one of her four years in Piscataway, and is yet to finish a season (including the shortened spring campaign) as a Scarlet Knight with fewer than 15 points. The future Portland Thorn is a complete striker- capable of threatening the net from any distance if given space, while also deft in her touches and ability to link up with her teammates. The Voorhees, N.J. native will lead the line for her fifth year in the fall, and it’s as safe of a bet as any that she’s going to cause major problems for opposition defenses.

Key Players: Frankie Tagliaferri, Becci Fluchel, Gabby Provenzano

Frankie Tagliaferri: As discussed above, Tagliaferri is about as big of a move as Rutgers could have possibly made this offseason. Adding a good transfer player is one thing. Adding a player that led the conference champions (and your main rivals) in points last season is another. Equal parts scorer (27 career goals) and creator (26 assists), Tagliaferri was a three season full-time starter at Penn State whose numbers have improved each passing year. With ten goals and nine assists across 16 matches this spring, Tagliaferri put up a conference-best 1.81 points per game, a score that puts her in the company of some of the nation’s best as well. The return of the Colts Neck native to Piscataway is a statement to the rest of the Big Ten that Rutgers is going to once again be hunting for the title.

Becci Fluchel: Thrown right into the fire starting her first collegiate game back in February against Penn State, the freshman wasted no time repaying coach Mike O’Neill’s faith by establishing herself as a tireless force at the base of Rutgers’ midfield trio. With the Scarlet Knights’ 4-3-3 allowing for two free-roaming 8.5s, being the disciplined lynchpin in front of the defense is no easy task. Fluchel has a lot of responsibility in such a system, and her ability to fulfill that responsibility was vital to the Scarlet Knights posting one of the best defensive records in the conference last season.

Gabby Provenzano: A central defender who can also fill in in the midfield, Provenzano didn’t leave the field once last season for the Scarlet Knights. Though she doesn’t offer the typical profile of a domineering center half at just 5’5, Provenzano has established herself as one of the conference’s best defenders through a keen sense of positioning and a skillful range of distribution from the back. Her ability to help Rutgers play out through the back and calm presence as an outlet when the midfield come under duress are traits that make her an integral part of this Rutgers side.

Breakout Watch: Allison Lowrey

Though the return of Ali likely postpones Lowrey’s true breakout season to 2022, the sophomore striker is still likely primed for a bigger role in the fall following a strong freshman campaign. Though she was mostly used as a substitute and occasional spot starter throughout the spring, Lowrey made a pretty clear case for herself in her limited minutes. Posting 2 goals and 3 assists, the Bridgewater native displayed a physical skill set well suited to take on Big Ten defenses, as well as a knack for clutch plays (setting up Ali’s winner in the national first round against Southeastern Louisiana as well as scoring the late equalizer against Clemson in the second round.)

We will have Part 2 of the preview series for you on Tuesday featuring the teams from Indiana and Michigan.