Following last year’s Big Ten championship, nobody quite knew what to expect from the Wisconsin Badgers men’s soccer team (3-1-0 Big Ten, 6-4-2 overall) in 2018. They had their share of returning playmakers but lost all four members of their front line to graduation. Those four seniors — Chris Mueller, Tom Barlow, Mike Catalano and Mark Segbers — scored 82 percent of the UW’s goals in 2017. How would Wisconsin replace all of that production?
That’s where a young man from Chicago comes in.
Freshman striker Andrew Akindele started in the Chicago Fire Soccer Academy in 2011, playing on their first U13/14 team in 2013. Wisconsin head coach John Trask, however, followed Akindele’s development long before he started with the Fire.
“I’ve known Andrew since he was 6-7 years old,” Trask said. “I’ve known his family for 12 years and watched him mature through his youth development.”
Akindele leads the team in both goals and assists with three, and it hasn’t been just beginner’s luck. He plays the game with a certain finesse not often matched in college soccer with swift backheels and one-touch passes.
“Andrew has always been technically gifted and possesses very good athleticism,” Trask said. “His ability to provide for other players as well as score himself are great traits for a forward.”
But to strictly focus on the forward’s offense would be offensive. His defensive pressure high in the offensive zone has led to goals for him and his teammates. Akindele’s timely tackles gave the Badgers their lone goal against Marquette and a late, game-tying goal against Big Ten rival Maryland.
“It starts off with the defense … if we work on our pressuring and we’re tight defensively, that allows us to attack,” Akindele said. “It’s weird because the more we defend and the better we defend, the more we attack.”
Trask has emphasized the defensive system as part of the place where the young strikers had to work on, and he’s been impressed with Akindele in particular.
“Probably the area Andrew has shown the greatest growth is the ability to defend and be better tactically so we can win balls in the right parts of the field,” Trask said.
During the Badgers’ five-game winning streak, the team nearly doubled their scoring total from the first seven games of the season. The production is finally coming back.
“I just think progressively we got more comfortable with each other,” Akindele said. “We just found specific movements for each other and how we work off the ball for each other. I think that’s been the key.”
Wisconsin’s 4-2 victory over Rutgers on Sunday, Oct. 7 seemed like a changing of the guard. The Badgers not only scored the most goals in a single game this season, but three of those came at the feet of freshmen: Akindele for one and forward Noah Melick for two.
Melick won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week for his performance. The pair of strikers are also roommates and showed off their chemistry by assisting each other’s goals.
The two young strikers seem to be building a good partnership on and off the pitch — Akindele tweeted “roomie tings” in response to Melick’s honors this week — and Akindele said that’s helped their chemistry.
“I think [being roommates] for sure helps … we’re just really good friends, and that helps us on the field,” said Akindele.
The Badgers have some promising stars and have improved each game after their loss against the No. 2 Indiana Hoosiers. UW has bounced back, and Akindele is ready to find out what else is in store.
“We kind of lost our way a little bit because we had a few losses to teams that we should have won [against],” said Akindele. “In terms of goals, we just … take what other teams give us, and if we continue to do that, we should be headed in the right way.”