It’s been a grueling season for Indiana men’s soccer.
Not only have the matches on the schedule been as congested as usual, but plenty of Big Ten teams improved and gave the conference kings mightier challenges than in previous seasons — think of Indiana’s loss to Ohio State and three draws to Michigan State, Rutgers and Michigan.
The pressure was on even before the conference slate started, too.
Head coach Todd Yeagley and the Hoosiers only want to face the best in preparation for the NCAA Tournament each year, but the 2022 season’s opening act could be viewed as one of the team’s most stacked of the past several years in hindsight.
A season opener against the defending national champion, Clemson University, was followed by the University of Portland, currently ranked No. 7 in the United Soccer Coaches poll. Indiana then soared past St. John’s University, a usual favorite in the Big East Conference, and beat then-No. 9 University of Akron, which remains in the top-25 at No. 22.
After all the highs and lows, Indiana is just one win away against No. 8 Maryland — depending on other results by both Michigan State and Ohio State — from a potential share of the Big Ten regular season title.
For a couple of matches before that, though, the Hoosiers can be a little less tough on themselves as they face two less competitive nonconference opponents this week.
The Hoosiers’ final road match of the regular season will come against the University of Evansville Purple Aces at 7 p.m. Tuesday before a meeting with the Division III Trine University Thunder at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Bloomington.
Whether Yeagley and those in the program behind the scenes own crystal balls and meticulously scheduled these matches during this time frame, or they simply wanted to face more talented nonconference opponents early in the season is neither here nor there. These two matchups couldn’t have come at a better time for the Hoosiers, considering how the season has played out thus far.
To address the elephant in the room, every team, no matter how historically successful, plays a couple underwhelming opponents each season. Even the University of Alabama football team, a College Football Playoff favorite every season, had teams like the University of Louisiana Monroe and Austin Peay State University on its schedule this fall.
Besides the financial implications and payments behind these matchups, they largely exist as confidence boosters.
In Indiana’s case, it’s harder to cast any doubt toward the team’s record or overall performance since these late-season matches have less implications on both sides. On the other hand, it provides the players from two other in-state universities in Evansville and Trine with an opportunity to show their skills against the best.
Historically, there’s not much of a true rivalry to speak of between Indiana and either team.
The Hoosiers play the Purple Aces on almost a yearly basis, but the familiarity hasn’t garnered much success for the latter. The Cream and Crimson are 32-4-3 all-time in the series and are looking for their 19th win in a row. In just the past five meetings, the Hoosiers have outscored the Purple Aces 19-1.
The first-ever meeting between the Hoosiers and Thunder came last season, in which the Hoosiers put together a 9-0 rout.
These should be two straightforward, comfortable victories for Indiana, but playing two matches in three days isn’t exactly the definition of a physical break before Sunday’s battle with Maryland.
Yeagley firmly established his rotations in the past several games, only switching out one or two players into the starting lineup, but these midweek affairs could give the stars some much-needed rest while those who haven’t played as much the chance to climb up Yeagley’s shortlist of game-changers off the bench.
Balancing this will be complex.
The regular starters might be used in 20-to 30-minute shifts just to avoid too much rust ahead of the more meaningful matches ahead, but risk of injuries always exists. However, at this point in the season it’s difficult to envision any key player’s quality dropping severely from being benched for a match or two.
The matches could also serve as a final examination of which goalkeeper, redshirt senior Bryant Pratt or junior JT Harms, deserves to start between the posts in the Big Ten Tournament and beyond.
Pratt has started in Indiana’s last five matches since returning from injury against the University of Notre Dame. In Saturday’s 3-0 loss to No. 2 University of Kentucky, though, Pratt conceded a questionable goal that gave the Wildcats a crucial 2-0 lead. A short-range volley was fired directly at the goalkeeper and went through his gloves, which Yeagley said he and Pratt both knew was savable by his standards.
“We’re always evaluating,” Yeagley said after the Kentucky match. “I thought he made some really nice decisions. We’ve always said we have two very capable starting keepers. You just want to find the confidence and the feel at the right time.”
Tuesday’s away match against Evansville will be broadcast on ESPN+, while Thursday’s home match against Trine will be broadcast on BTN+.