After an up-and-down season for the Wisconsin women’s soccer team (5-5-1 Big Ten, 12-7-1 overall), the Badgers claimed an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament Monday night. Wisconsin will take on No.3 seed UCLA (8-2-1 Pac-12, 15-2-2 overall) Saturday night in the first round. Kick off is set for 7:30 p.m. in Los Angeles.
Although it is an away match, the Badgers have been there before. Earlier this season, UW squared off against the Bruins and lost 2-0. The game was equal for 77 minutes of play until UCLA found the back of the net. With this being said, Wisconsin is hopeful to improve upon its past experience in L.A.
“We know their key players now,” said freshman midfielder Kinley McNicoll. “If we take their key players away and we play to their weaknesses and our strengths, that will be important.”
UCLA will also be looking to improve upon its previous matchup with Wisconsin. The Bruins’ roster has changed since that 2-0 win.
“I think UCLA will be a little bit different,” said head coach Paula Wilkins. “They have some players that have returned from the world cup, so we have to make sure we prepare for that.”
The two teams will square off for only the third time in NCAA history, with the Bruins holding the series lead 2-0-0.
Transition defense will be vital for the Badgers’ success against the illusive Bruin offense.
“They’re very good in transition. They are athletic and quick, so I think we have to stay as organized as we can and really defend as a group,” said Wilkins. “This means recognizing where our teammates are, and not getting to spread out from one another.”
Without a doubt, the Badgers will be the underdogs heading into Saturday night. However, that role hasn’t always turned out bad for Wisconsin, as senior defender Lindsey Johnson pointed out.
“I think we do better when we’re the underdog,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why, but we always come out better when we’re perceived as the underdog.”
Wisconsin has proven this point with key victories over Illinois and Notre Dame this season.
“I think anytime you get in this situation it’s fun,” said Wilkins. “You have nothing to lose, so you are able to take more risks.”
This is Wisconsin’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010, and the Badgers will look to capitalize on the opportunity.
“I think everyone knows how big of a deal the NCAA tournament is,” Johnson said. “We were on the bubble this year, so it’s really a privilege for us to be going, and I think everyone knows that. We’re going to play like it’s our last game whether we’re a senior or freshman.”
If the Badgers can upset the Bruins, they will then play the winner of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee at Martin.