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Your Complete 2021 Big Ten Women’s Soccer Preview, Part 3

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We travel up and down I-90 today, hitting Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

All-conference brick wall Jordyn Bloomer
@BadgerWSoccer; UW Athletics Communications

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 all 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 teams along the I-90 corridor: Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern and...Wisconsin!

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

*do not fact check this with anyone but me

Illinois

Kendra Pasquale headlines an Illini team that exceeded expectations in 2020- can they repeat the feat in the fall?

Illinois had a wildly inconsistent condensed spring season. Over the course of twelve matches, they managed to embark on five (!) different winning/losing streaks, with such streaks never consisting of more than two games. They kept some of the Big Ten’s toughest competition at arms length- falling 2-1 to Ohio State and 1-0 to Wisconsin on the road- but their only top tier win came against Indiana. The post-season didn’t lead to any more luck for the Fighting Illini, as they became the first victim to the Iowa Big Ten Tournament Buzzsaw.

That being said, there’s plenty to look forward to in Champaign heading into the fall. They return a team that has just the right mix of youthful promise and tested experience to make some noise in conference play this fall.

Kendra Pasquale is one of the most useful players in the Big Ten and is the kind of player that every coach loves to have. Sami Sample is one of the conferences’ top netminders. And the Illini’s preferred defensive unit last season was almost entirely made up of underclassmen who will only grow in their ability and chemistry with each other. While it’s unlikely Illinois puts together a serious NCAA Tournament resume, this team certainly has the pieces to be a legitimate threat once the conference tournament rolls around.

MVP: Kendra Pasquale

Pasquale does it all for this Illini team. A jack of all trades and a master of several, the redshirt junior filled in at both defense and midfield for Illinois in the spring, and put up some impressive production to go with it. Leading the team in goals (five), and finishing second in assists (two), the Naperville, Ill. native amassed twelve total points, a mark good for ninth in the Big Ten. With a strong passing range, clinical final ball, and ample defensive capabilities, it won’t surprise many if Pasquale gets some NWSL looks in a few years time.

Key Players: Aleah Treiterer, Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal, Makena Silber

Aleah Treiterer: If you lead the team in assists from defense, you’re doing something right. Treiterer didn’t leave the field for the Illini this fall, playing an integral role in a defense that only allowed 12 goals on the year. Now heading into her junior year, the California native has plenty of room left to develop further as well and will get ample chance to do so as the cornerstone of the defense in Champaign once again this fall.

Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal: The second defender highlighted, the sophomore Canadian had a stellar rookie season in 2020. Along with Treiterer and goalkeeper Sami Sample, Verzosa-Dolezal was one of just three Illinois players to not leave the field in the spring. Three of the four defenders that made up the Illini backline last year we’re underclassman, and “JVD” will be a key part of that core unit as they grow in the fall.

Makena Silber: Second on the roster in both goals and points, the senior striker spearheaded an Illini attack that finished in the top half of the Big Ten in the spring. She has a flair for the clutch, as all of her three goals in Orange last spring were game-winners. Silber earned all-Big Ten third team honors for her efforts, and her production will be critical as Illinois tries to once again end up in the Big Ten tournament.

Breakout watch: Kennedy Berschel

Though she only made two starts last season, Berschel played an important role coming off the bench last season- she ended up appearing in 10 of Illinois’ 12 games. With one assist to her name, the sophomore will likely once again find herself out of the starting lineup given that COVID rules allow for all players from last year’s team to return should they wish, but she’s young and will have plenty of room to carve out a bigger role for herself in her second year of college soccer.

Minnesota

One of two teams in the Big Ten heading into the new season with a new coach, the Gophers will look to continue re-ascending the mountain to Big Ten (and national) prominence.

It’s been a rough couple of years in the Twin Cities for what has historically been one of the conference’s top programs. Following a poor 2019, Minnesota was solid in the spring, but struggled with consistency and never really looked a threat to the conference’s other traditional powers. They made it to the Big Ten quarterfinal on a four game unbeaten run (extended somewhat by default in the regional first round due to COVID issues with Nebraska), but were felled by Iowa in a blustery mess of a match that could be the poster example of a classic Big Ten playoff showdown.

But now a new coach is in town to try to bring the Gophers back to the upper echelons of the Big Ten. Erin Chastain arrives on the back of a successful fourteen year career at DePaul, where she marshaled the Blue Demons into a consistent contender in conference play, and a one time top-ten team in the country.

A Minnesota alum herself, Chastain knows the program as well as just about anyone, and brings a wealth of experience as a coach in both the midwest and the Big Ten (she also spent three seasons as the top assistant coach at Northwestern). The road back to the top won’t be easy- and the loss of some top players like Katie Duong and Athena Kuehn to the transfer portal will only complicate matters further- but Chastain has the Gophers ready to compete, at minimum, for a conference tournament berth once again.

BONUS NOTE: This section was provided by Matt Privratsky (@MattPrivratsky) of Equal Time Soccer. Matt and ETS do completely unrivaled work in Minnesota covering women’s soccer, and you absolutely should go follow them.

MVP: Sophia Boman

“After playing every minute of her freshman season last spring, Boman is expected to hit the ground running and translate the mountains of potential she showed last season as a box to box midfielder into even some consistent offensive production for herself and her teammates. Expect her to tally multiple goals and assists while covering tons of ground defensively as a do-it-all star.”

Key Players: Izzy Brown, Delany Stekr, Megan Plaschko

Izzy Brown: “Can [Brown] help break the Gophers multi-season streak of low goal scoring? Her tall frame and confidence on the ball should give Minnesota a dynamic in the final third they’ve been missing. And hopefully she can be dangerous enough in the air to help Minnesota translate more of their corner kicks (Big Ten leaders by a mile last year) into actual goals.”

Delany Stekr: “With Athena Kuehn departing as her center back partner, Stekr will be tasked with anchoring a back line with two new starters and a new holding midfielder in front of her. Her long service and willingness to compete for balls in the air complement solid positioning and decision making.”

Megan Plaschko: “Plaschko had a solid first run of starts last season, first splitting time with long time starter Maddie Nielsen and then eventually taking over full time. But after a couple mistakes in the Big Ten Tournament that led to being pulled in favor of Nielsen, Plaschko returns ready to solidify herself as one of the better keepers in the Big Ten. Her ability as a shot stopper should help shore up a backline with two new starters.”

Breakout watch: Lauren Donovan

“As an early enrollee last spring, Donovan showed serious potential as a holding midfielder in training despite being able to play in games. Now, this fall, she’s being called upon to be the linchpin between a back line with two new starters and an offense rebuilt with new forwards.”

Northwestern

Michael Moynihan’s young side took another step forward in the spring- but can they prove they’re more than just a tough out and can start winning consistently as well?

Northwestern had a strange season last year. Just looking at their win/loss splits can show just how hot and cold the team’s form was: WLWLWLLWWLLWL. To say the Wildcats were inconsistent would be an understatement, having never put together a single win or loss streak that exceeded two games.

It wasn’t for a lack of quality performances- Northwestern only lost to Ohio State and Wisconsin by one goal in the regular season, and in the Big Ten quarterfinal managed to take Wisconsin to penalty kicks before falling to the Badgers- but for one reason or another the Wildcats always found themselves one step away from putting together a winning run.

The potential for improvement remains in 2021 though. The Wildcats ended a poor 2019 season starting five freshman and four sophomores, and that team’s core is now finally entering their upperclassmen “primes.”

Multi-year starters like Danika Austin and Julietta Thron solidify the spine of the Northwestern lineup, and they’ve been joined by impact underclassmen like Josie Aulicino to create a more than formidable squad. Moynihan has built a 2021 team in his preferred mold that he’s succeeded with in the Big Ten for years- experienced, physical, and tough on defense. Add in the spark provided by creative midfielders like Regan Steigleder and Aulicino, and the Wildcats are primed to put together a season that could surprise some people.

MVP: Regan Steigleder

The heartbeat of this Northwestern team, Steigleder was almost always the most important player to anything the Wildcats looked to do tactically last season. Able to both shift out wide and hug the touchline as well as play through the middle, Northwestern’s system allows the graduate student out of Iowa City to drift wherever necessary to create chances. The team’s lead penalty kick taker has missed one start in four years, and it’s a safe bet that if all goes to plan she won’t be missing any more in 2021 as well.

Key Players: Josie Aulicino, Hallie Pearson, Olivia Stone

Josie Aulicino: One of the best freshmen in the conference in the spring, Aulicino proved to be an immediate impact player in the Northwestern midfield from the opening kickoff. Tying for the team lead in assists with three as well as adding a rocket of a first career goal, between Aulicino and Steigleder the Wildcats appear to have their attacking midfield positions more than locked down for 2021 as the sophomore continues to grow her game.

Hallie Pearson: After arriving from Arizona as a transfer, the senior center back wasted no time establishing herself as an integral piece in the Wildcat backline. Leading the team in minutes with 1198, Pearson hardly left the field in the spring.

Her impact has been tremendous- Northwestern went from a -12 goal differential in 2019 to +2 in 2020, and opponents went from averaging 1.5 goals per game to just 0.92. Northwestern will hope to keep their goal differential in the positives once again this fall, and if they’re to do so Pearson will be absolutely vital.

Olivia Stone: Leading the line for Northwestern this season will likely be their second leading goal-scorer and goal-creator from the previous spring, Stone. Adding three goals and two assists, the senior striker has an intangible, yet indispensable, knack for the dramatic- all three of her goals were game winners. With Northwestern’s attack continuing to emerge (improving from 0.83 goals per game in 2019 to 1.08 in 2020), Stone should get plenty of chances to add to her account in 2021.

Breakout watch: Aurea Martin

Martin played a key role in a flexible Wildcat side in the spring, playing both in the midfield and as a forward when called upon. Tying for second on the team in goals with three and adding an assist, the production in relatively limited time (just 721 minutes) indicates that the junior has plenty more to provide in the fall. An quick and tireless presence, Martin is a nightmare to play against and should get plenty more chances to wreak havoc further pressing tired legs as the Big Ten returns to longer seasons once again.

Wisconsin

Falling just short in the Big Ten title game and then controversially excluded from the NCAA Tournament, the Badgers come into the fall with plenty to prove

Coming off a 2019 season that saw them take home the Big Ten regular season crown, the belated 2020 spring season was relatively underwhelming for Wisconsin. The Badgers looked solid all year, but struggled to find an offensive second gear until late in the season.

While scrappy 1-0 wins were enough for UW to get past teams like Michigan and Illinois, the defending (regular season) champs struggled to keep pace against Ohio State in what proved to be a key matchup for their tourney bubble standing. Lauren Rice returning from injury in late March helped inject some creativity into the side with the Badgers picking up their first two goal game on her debut against Maryland, and Wisconsin would go on a four game unbeaten run following that win, but that streak would unfortunately come to a close at the hands of Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament final.

The 2020 Badgers had all the pieces of a contender- as shown by their two wins over Rutgers late in the season and their conference-best defensive record- but the answers just weren’t there for them in the attack until it was too late. How coach Paula Wilkins intends to remedy that in the fall should be interesting.

Wisconsin will likely retain both their starting strikers from last season in Cammie Murtha and Lauren Rice, and a large freshman class is arriving in Madison this summer, but an uptick in goals will need to come from somewhere to avoid a repeat of the spring. One interesting (re)addition to the lineup may be Natalie Viggiano- used as a rotational piece throughout 2019, the second center attacking midfield spot next to Emma Jaskaniec in Wisconsin’s 4-2-2-2 would have likely been hers for the taking in the spring had it not been for an ACL injury.

Viggiano should be back in full force for the fall, and how she factors into the lineup (as well as sophomore Sophia Romine, who played in that second No. 10 spot in her absence) will be something to watch out for.

MVP: Jordyn Bloomer

It’s no easy feat to be named to the MAC Herman watch list as a goalkeeper. It’s also no easy feat to be named Big Ten goalkeeper of the year twice in a row, but Bloomer did that as well. She’ll be gunning for a third this fall, as she returns for her fourth season starting between the pipes for the Badgers. Bloomer was even named the third team goalie for Top Drawer Soccer’s national Best XI.

Bloomer has proven herself to be at her best in the biggest moments- be it saving penalties to sneak Wisconsin by Northwestern in the Big Ten quarterfinals, or staring down a striker charging in on goal in the dying moments of a match, the Hartland native has nerves of steel and a certain swagger that always keeps the team energetic even when the going gets tough.

Key Players: Lauren Rice, Emma Jaskaniec, Macy Monticello

Lauren Rice: Rice was instrumental in leading Wisconsin’s charge back onto the verge of NCAA tournament at-large qualification in the second half of the spring, and her presence will likely be vital again as the Badgers look to reassert themselves into the Big Ten contenders picture. A forward who can drift wide or even shift back into midfield when needed, Rice’s ability to connect play and create all over the pitch is a major asset for Wisconsin.

Emma Jaskaniec: The teams’ leader in points and goals last season, Jaskaniec is a fiery leader and competitor that serves as the heartbeat of this Badger team. The rising junior thrives in big moments- she led the Big Ten in game winning goals last season with four (including the last-minute finish that sent Wisconsin to the conference championship), and when the Badgers faced a penalty kick shootout in the quarterfinals it was Jaskaniec that stepped up and fired home their first kick.

Macy Monticello: One of just three outfield players to register more than 1300 minutes last season, the Arlington, Va. native was an integral piece in the Badgers’ stellar defense last year. With the departures of seniors Claire Shea and Sammy Kleedtke looking likely, Monticello is set to be the next leader at the back for UW. Given her ability to play both fullback and centerback, the junior’s versatility will likely be an asset for Coach Wilkins.

Breakout watch: Aidan McConnell

As mentioned above, all signs are currently pointing to both of Wisconsin’s incumbent center backs in Shea and Kleedtke departing the team before the fall season. Should that be true, there will be a hole of about 2000 minutes at the heart of the Badger backline. McConnell arrives in Madison as one of the top defensive recruits in the midwest for the class of 2021, and it would be no surprise if she’s sent to trial by fire in the fall. Another candidate to watch for a breakout season at the center back spot is Gabby Green.