Sports

Wisconsin men's soccer to rely on experienced spine while reloading attack

Junior midfielder Mitch Guitar helped guide the Wisconsin Badgers over the Buckeyes in overtime.

Image By: Brandon Moe and Brandon Moe

Last year, the Wisconsin Badgers men’s soccer team won its first Big Ten Tournament in thrilling fashion, reached the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament and had four players get drafted during the 2018 MLS Superdraft, including Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Chris Mueller.

Mueller, along with Tom Barlow, Mark Segbers and Mike Catalano fueled the Badgers’ run with a high-powered offense, scoring on average two goals a game. Barlow and Catalano were in the double digits for goals, while Mueller had a nation-best 20 assists.

With all four of those attackers gone to the professional soccer ranks – along with their goal-scoring prowess that accounted for three-quarters of the Badgers’ goals last season – the Badgers' biggest question mark will be finding who fills their shoes for the upcoming season on the attack.

Head coach John Trask hopes the younger forwards and attacking players stay “young and hungry” as they head into the season.

“The key is going to be figuring out which one of these young attackers can help us immediately. Hopefully with [the key returning spine] we should be able to give them opportunity to grow into their positions,” Trask said.

That spine includes junior defenders Robin Olofsson, Elan Koenig and Connor Maki, three players who started nearly all the games last year for Wisconsin. The midfield is also secure, with Mitch Guitar and Noah Leibold returning after impressing last year as box-to-box midfielders.

Trask also noted that despite the departure of goalkeeper Philipp Schilling, the Badgers addressed their need at keeper by adding experienced transfers like Morten Lamps from Virginia Tech and Dean Cowdroy from Division-Two Lander University in South Carolina.

As far as the young attackers, the Badgers bring in an exciting class of freshman this season, with many great players in the forward roles. To name a few, Andrew Akindele played for the Chicago Fire academy, Matthew Comiskey earned the title of Wisconsin High School Boys Player of the Year while scoring 46 goals last season, and Charles Spragg represented the U-20 National Team for New Zealand, scoring in a U-20 World Cup qualifier against Tahiti this past week.

The list of attackers that Wisconsin signed is mouth-watering for the program based just off their talent alone, but Trask doesn’t want to push the freshman too fast too soon.

“We’re excited about these young guys, there’s no question about that,” said Trask. “But expecting too much from them right off the bat would be unfair. That’s where players like Patrick Yim, David Portugal and Alex Alfaro step in. They’re going to be critical to our success.”

Sophomore Alex Alfaro didn’t see much playing time last season, scoring one goal in just 171 minutes, but he is a player that Trask is excited about. Alfaro played with the fourth-tier Premier Development League side Chicago United FC over the summer along with fellow Badgers Isaac Schlenker, Jack Shaw, David Portugal and Patrick Yim, and he said the experience has him excited for the upcoming season.

Alfaro was happy to be training at such a high level at Chicago United FC with players from other schools like Michigan, Duke and Ohio State. He also knew that Mueller, Barlow, Segbers and Catalano passed through there as well, and he’s ready to take the leadership role for the offense.

“They set the bar very high. I’m just focusing on getting the leadership and communication skills and making sure I can make goals for myself,” said Alfaro. “I want to fill their shoes and be able to make my own way.”

In the PDL, Alfaro was able to rack up useful minutes in the semi-professional ranks in preparation for the season and scored a goal for the team in the playoffs, but he still highlights how crucial the veterans behind him will be.

“These guys have a lot of game time and enough experience to help the younger guys like myself to lead us,” Alfaro said.

Even with the departure of so many key players, Wisconsin ranks 12th in the United Soccer Coaches’ poll to start the season. While key departures might seem somewhat worrying, Trask isn’t concerned. The last time that they had to refresh after an NCAA Tournament berth in 2013, the Badgers started “seven or eight freshmen.” This team has many key returners from the Badgers’ Big Ten Tournament championship last season and the deep NCAA Tournament run, and Trask thinks those titles are evidence for the young players that the “Wisconsin culture and ‘Badger toughness’” works.

“I just think when the players have a ring on their fingers, there’s a composure, there’s an understanding of what it takes to win at this level,” Trask said.

The Badgers officially open up the season August 24 at Grand Canyon University.

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