Tomorrow the Wisconsin women’s soccer team will face their biggest test of the season when the Rutgers Scarlet Knights travel to Madison in the penultimate match of the 2021 Big Ten season. It will be a matchup loaded with implications- Rutgers needs a win to stay alive in their title fight with Penn State, and the Badgers need a win if they want to continue to control their destiny on their path to an NCAA tournament bid.
However necessary, a win won’t come easy for the Badgers- the Scarlet Knights are an elite team and it will take a top performance from Wisconsin to take them down.
So far this season Rutgers head coach Mike O’Neill has preferred a 4-3-3 formation, emphasizing a strong backline that’s allowed a joint conference best six goals this year (Wisconsin being the only other team to concede that few). The back four is anchored by Emma Misal, Gabby Provenzano, Shea Holland, and Allison Lynch, all of whom have rarely left the field in 2021.
Though Provenzano and Holland don’t jump off the page as the dominant center backs associated with a rock solid defensive team, with both standing 5’5, don’t be deceived- each offers a physical presence that will be very difficult for the Badgers to muscle past. Provenzano in particular has been crucial- the senior native of Sergeantsville, New Jersey brings both the leadership and experience of a three year starter as well as the passing finesse of a converted midfielder. Her skill on the ball as a distributor allows the Scarlet Knights to play out from the back, something very few teams in the Big Ten can do at a high level consistently.
The underclassmen Lynch and Misal occupy the fullback roles, and are crucial in all phases of the game for Rutgers. Both can get up and down the field on the flanks at high speeds, providing width on offense and stability in defense. Lynch is one of three players (along with Provenzano and goalkeeper Megan McClelland) who have played every minute for the Scarlet Knights this campaign.
Rutgers plays with an aggressive and talented midfield three that’s made up entirely of freshmen. The trio of first-year New Jerseyans in the center of the park for the Scarlet Knights finds its danger in the way they compliment each other. Becci Fluchel sits at the base of the midfield, where the Pittstown native (who can also play defense) excels at breaking up opposition play and provides a link between the backline and the attacking midfield.
The two advanced midfielders- Julianne Leskauskas and Samantha Kroeger- are tasked with being both creative forces and dangers in front of goal. The pair has done plenty of both in 2021, each showing an eye for long range strikes and incisive passes. Kroeger and Leskauskas are second and third on the team in points, respectively, and will look to continue their growth as the Scarlet Knights head towards the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
While the Scarlet Knights front three isn’t a conventional pairing of two direct wingers and a single striker, it can loosely be defined as such. Freshman Sara Brocious and Nneka Moneme operate less as wingers and more as wide forwards, but regardless of their positional classification the pairing is dangerous. Both have a goal on the year, and Brocious has also chipped in 3 assists.
But while Brocious and Moneme are great players in their own right, the star of the show up top for Rutgers is striker Amirah Ali. The future Portland Thorn is as good as they come at the center forward position- she strikes the ball tremendously well, has great positional instincts, and can combine with the rest of the attack. The senior is widely regarded as one of the best strikers in the collegiate game, and will be looking to add to her team high five goals on Sunday at McClimon Field.
The youth movement continues in Piscataway among Rutgers’ top substitute contributors. Allison Lowrey offers a physical presence on the front line, showing comfort with battling at the college level far beyond her freshman status. Another young piece O’Neill has made use of is the versatile Giana Romano, who can play in both attack and in midfield depending on the team’s needs. Though Lowrey and Romano have just one start between them through nine games this year, the pairing is integral for a Scarlet Knights side that’s able to rest top players for short periods and not have the team look any worse off.
Wisconsin’s matchup against Rutgers can be found on the Big Ten Network tomorrow at 11:30 AM CT. The Badgers will enter the match at 5-3-1 on the year, seeking to control their own destiny in the race for the hotly-contested third and fourth places in the Big Ten standings. The Scarlet Knights will come in at 6-1-2, and will be fighting for their lives in a title race that they’ll be mathematically eliminated from with a loss and a Penn State win.