It was only two matches ago when a group of Indiana men’s soccer players lay face-down and dejected across the same soggy pitch that a conference foe finally turned its contention hopes into reality.
The No. 7-ranked Maryland Terrapins had officially secured the Big Ten regular season title that day, Oct. 30, drawing the Hoosiers 1-1. It crushed the Hoosiers’ dream of a late-season climb to the top of the table, and they watched the ecstatic Terrapins hoist the trophy on their own field.
Only 10 days later, the No. 4-seeded Hoosiers will have a shot at revenge against the No. 1-seeded Terrapins on their path to a Big Ten Tournament championship. This time, the Hoosiers will be the visitors in Wednesday’s semifinal showdown at Ludwig Field in College Park, Maryland.
“This is now a new title, that one is gone,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said in Monday’s press conference. “Our guys are excited for it. There’s motivation certainly, but we try to focus on what’s ahead of us, not behind us, in everything we do.”
Penn State, a less dynamic and deep team than Maryland, ran into some misfortune with an injury to star senior forward Liam Butts and switched up its tactical approach at the last moment. The No. 5-seeded Nittany Lions’ five-at-the-back strategy Friday therefore came as a surprise, but the Hoosiers adapted well enough to advance.
With the loaded Terrapins, on the other hand, Yeagley knows exactly what his squad will be faced with: a relentless attacking force able to stay disciplined no matter the time or daunting situation during a match.
Maryland not only showcased this championship attitude on decision day by equalizing in the dying minutes against Indiana but kept its composure in its quarterfinal matchup with No. 8-seeded Northwestern despite a subpar offensive performance. After clanging their first penalty kick off the crossbar and firing another straight into the goalkeeper’s gloves, the Terrapins avoided a major upset with a 76th-minute goal for a 1-0 win.
In the first meeting, the Hoosiers fell back into a defensive shell when it came time to close out the match — a standard adjustment that only came back to hurt them because of the Terrapins’ attacking quality. For long stretches after taking a 1-0 lead, though, the Hoosiers looked the side more likely to score and created chances good enough to put the score out of reach.
“With teams you’re very familiar with, it’s just about who can execute,” Yeagley said. “They know what our tendencies are, we certainly know what theirs are.
Postseason play is gritty, physical and tightly contested. This couldn’t hold any truer between these Big Ten rivals, who already got a taste of a tournament environment in their matchup in Bloomington.
Half chances and set pieces may be all either team gets, requiring the utmost level of focus and resilience to move onto Sunday’s championship game.
“That’s what it’s going to come down to: being really sure in the back half and excellent restarts, as we see in any late stages — any tournament, any cup,” Yeagley said.
Set pieces have treated Indiana well, both over the course of the season and recently. Twelve of the Hoosiers’ 33 total goals have come through set pieces, and there’s been a balance between the methods.
The Hoosiers converted on all four of their penalty kicks and scored on three corner kicks. They also have senior defender Nyk Sessock’s strength to thank for uncanny, long-distance throw-ins that caused scrambles in the 18-yard box which led to goals in four separate matches.
Senior forward Ryan Wittenbrink, the Hoosiers’ leading goal scorer with eight goals, scored the lone goal in each of their last two matches. Sticking to the script, each came off a restart — a perfectly-placed free kick against Maryland and a precise, low-driven shot on the end of deflection during a corner kick against Penn State.
The latter ultimately won Indiana Friday’s match, giving Wittenbrink his fourth game-winning goal of the season — the most of all Big Ten players.
Given everything, facing the Terrapins on the road in their current form is arguably the Hoosiers’ toughest test in a season full of star-studded opponents.
Maryland, still undefeated in Big Ten play, lost just twice all year — granted, both came at Ludwig Field. Indiana visited College Park for last fall’s regular season finale and left empty-handed after a 2-0 loss. The Hoosiers are 2-4-3 all-time as the visitors against the Terrapins but won the last three meetings, home-and-away, in the Big Ten Tournament.
“It’s going to be a tough atmosphere,” Yeagley said. “Those are the games you love to play in, and if you get a result, they’re just that much more enjoyable.”
Wednesday’s semifinal, slated to kickoff at 8 p.m., will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.