Wisconsin men’s soccer head coach John Trask knew there was a lot of work for his team this season.
After replacing seven starters from last season’s Big Ten title winning team including all four senior strikers, the Badgers are off to a reasonable 2-3-1 start heading into their first Big Ten test against the No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers (5-0-1).
“It takes time to build a good soccer team,” Trask said.
The team has had its fair share of up and downs as highlighted by their most recent road trip. After a crushing 3-0 defeat against the SIU-Edwardsville Cougars (4-0-1) in sloppy, wet conditions, Trask celebrated his team’s ability to bounce back and earn a 0-0 tie against the Bradley Braves (4-0-2).
“[The game against Bradley] was a battle. Some of our young guys really stood up to the challenge with was great to see,” said Trask.
Now the young, inexperienced Badgers turn their focus to the Hoosiers, who are off to a great start to the season. Indiana are battle-tested, winning four of their five games against teams ranked in the top 25 – their only loss was a 2-1 overtime thriller at No. 1 Wake Forest – and come into the game with an electric offense, averaging over 2.17 goals per game.
Wisconsin’s defense, led by junior defender Robin Olofsson, has been stout so far this season, allowing only one goal per game and earning three clean sheets, but the attack has so far struggled to find their rhythm.
Freshman forward Andrew Akindele has adjusted to the college game pretty well, scoring in his debut against Grand Canyon University, but he said he’s still learning and developing on the defensive duties necessary in the college game.
The Chicago Fire academy product said the young forwards have focused on learning how to press high up the field and defend in blocks to make it easier transition. The defensive retraining has been the main focus, but once they figure that out, Akindele thinks the offense will come alive now that they’re used to the system.
“It’s been hard to find a balance between our defensive work and offensive work,” Akindele said. “Once we find that balance...we can start scoring the goals and being more creative going forward. That’s when the goals will start to come.”
Akindele, along with fellow freshmen forwards Noah Melick, Chris Bruch and Charles Spragg, have also been in and out of the game in part to find the best combinations. [The stuff about working in practice, whether in a quote or just the little he said]
Melick said the freshmen knew they had big shoes to fill after the departure of players like Chris Mueller and Tom Barlow. The Algonquin, Ill. native was recovering from a sprained ankle before returning to extended playing time against Valparaiso.
The big striker had a season best four shots that game, but still is hungry to finish those opportunities, even with the pressure of being so young.
“Once we get more comfortable finishing chances, even with all the pressure on our backs, we’re gonna be putting away a lot of goals, Melick said.
So far the forwards have been heavily rotated to find the right combinations, not always allowing the players to get settled in the game. Akindele said during practice the forwards have been working on figuring out each other’s games and the team is still figuring that out through games.
Trask himself said the team was “sifting through” various combinations of the young attackers to find out who works best together and what combinations have stood out. Trask mentioned Spragg and sophomore midfielder Alex Alfaro as having a partnership that was becoming “razor sharp.”
The team has steadily gone with less rotation up top, going from seven attackers playing to only four attackers playing last game against Bradley. With so many young attackers fighting for spots, Melick said there’s been a lot of competition among the strikers, but there’s no ill will between the young group.
“All the forwards, we all love each other already. We have great relationships already,” Melick said. “We just want what’s best for the team. If that means you’re not playing a lot because another guy is playing, that’s fine. You just gotta let them know you’re there for them whenever and you’re always supporting them.”
The strikers are raring to go and play against such a big opponent in Indiana. And with the soccer program’s annual “Pack the MAC” event – free tickets for students and one dollar to the general public – the atmosphere is something that Akindele is looking forward to.
“I always wanted to be a Badger. Finally being here and being able to come out to “Pack the MAC” and lead the front line and hopefully get the goals for us to get the win, it’s a great opportunity and great feeling,” Akindele said.
The Badgers kick off against the Indiana Hoosiers at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday.