After challenging start, Wisconsin’s youngsters are finding their footing

Image By: McKaylin Gamel and McKaylin Gamel

When sophomore defender Patrick Yim’s scored a second-half goal to pull Wisconsin within a goal of the No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers, it put the Badgers in an unfamiliar spot — going toe-to-toe with a national powerhouse in the closing minutes of a game.

And while the effort was in vain as the Hoosiers eventually pulled away after scoring a goal to make it 3-1 and give the Badgers their fourth loss on the season, it seemed like something clicked in the second half.

Wisconsin put pressure on a national title contender and gave clear proof of concept to an inexperienced and young team that they can hang with the best teams in the country.

Since that loss on Sept. 16, the Badgers have reeled off a four-game unbeaten streak that has seen them win on the road and find contributions from new sources — both expected and unexpected.

UW bounced back from the Indiana loss and a first half goal from Maryland to win 2-1 in overtime. Sophomore midfielder Michael Russell II, a former walk-on who had only played 45 minutes in three games for the Badgers leading up to the game, scored the tying goal with 53 seconds left to force overtime. The game-winner scored by sophomore defender Zach Klancnik off a free kick was sort of emblematic of the game: scrappy and just enough to get through.

The Badgers returned to Wisconsin, beating Marquette 1-0 thanks to a finish by freshman forward Andrew Akindele. Akindele, a former Chicago Fire academy product, has been the leader for the Badgers offense, pacing the team in both goals and assists with two each. While he has been one of the focal points, the UW offense has had eight different goal scorers on the season and Akindele is one of just two players to find the back of the net more than once.

In the biggest win of the season so far, the Badgers traveled to East Lansing, Michigan and upset the then-No. 5 Michigan State Spartans in overtime thanks to a stunning strike by sophomore midfielder Alex Alfaro. Alfaro has yet to get going on the stat sheet for UW but, as his game-winning goal showed, the mercurial winger is one of the most talented players on the team.

The win over Michigan State has brought Wisconsin back into the national spotlight, but surprisingly it’s not thanks to their spectacular offense. Last year Wisconsin relied on a slate of talented attackers to overwhelm teams offensively, but in 2018 they’ve been scrapping out wins on defense. The Badgers are allowing just one goal per game and have earned five clean sheets on the season — with the two most crucial coming this past week against in-state rivals Marquette and the highly-ranked Spartans.

Junior goalkeeper Dean Cowdroy had seven saves and held a shutout for 187 minutes between the two games to earn the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. The Australian native, who transferred from Division II Lander University, has filled in brilliantly for departed goalkeeper Phillip Schilling.

With Wisconsin’s strong performances against some of the top Big Ten programs in Indiana, Maryland and Michigan State, the Badgers have gained momentum coming into the rest of the conference slate. Michigan is the only team left in the top part of the table the Badgers have yet to play, but UW has plenty of opportunities to get more momentum before that matchup.

The Badgers will look to continue their run at home as they host Rutgers next Sunday, followed by a matchup with Green Bay on Wednesday.

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