On Wednesday night in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, Indiana men’s soccer reinserted itself into the conversation of national contention. The Hoosiers, who were marred by rocky regular season play — both inside and out of the conference — marched into College Park, Maryland with one goal in mind: revenge.
After defeating Penn State in the quarterfinals, head coach Indiana Todd Yeagley and his players quickly found out they would travel to face the Terrapins in the next round. Redshirt senior defender Daniel Munie, the team captain, especially relished the opportunity.
Courtesy of two first-half goals from sophomore forward Sam Sarver and junior defender Joey Maher, Indiana braved the hostile environment to obtain the tournament’s No. 1 seed. The win was routine for Yeagley, who advanced to his sixth-consecutive Big Ten Tournament final.
Their opponent, No. 2-seed Rutgers, will make its first finals appearance in program history. While they are a historically successful program, the Scarlet Knights have been middling since joining the Big Ten in 2014. At noon on Sunday in Piscataway, New Jersey, a rapidly ascending power welcomes what is arguably college soccer’s greatest empire.
“(Rutgers) is a proud program that obviously has a new life in the Big Ten,” Yeagley said in a press conference Friday. “It’s very hard to be at the top and stay there. They’re finding their stride, and it’s going to be a difficult challenge at their place.”
Rutgers attributes a vast majority of its success to potent attacking play. Senior forward MD Meyers, who notched 13 goals this season en route to Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, is the team’s engine.
Though Meyers’ game-wrecking potential is well documented, his accompanying attackers have served an integral role in Rutgers’ top scoring Big Ten offense. Senior midfielder Jackson Temple, though slighter in stature, possesses phenomenal quickness and toughness when taking on defenders.
As was evident when Rutgers hosted the Hoosiers Oct. 9, the Scarlet Knights have an uncanny ability to terrorize backlines and cause fits in a hurry. Junior midfielder Jason Bouregy and graduate student midfielder Pablo Avila — who have combined for seven goals and 12 assists on the season — often spark their dangerous chances.
“They’re dynamic,” Yeagley said. “They’re individually gifted. Their movement off the ball live was better than we’d seen on video. Their attacking rotations are very good. They’ve put a bit more emphasis into where their numbers go, which is forward. The stats show that.
While Rutgers’ attack powered it past Ohio State in the semifinals, the Scarlet Knights’ defensive struggles remained. Throughout conference play, they ranked below average in goals allowed and goals against average. Against the Buckeyes on Wednesday, Rutgers surrendered 14 shots and may have been a bit lucky to escape with conceding just one goal.
Over the course of the season, the Scarlet Knights’ backline had a tendency to be left exposed due to its highly aggressive nature on the attack. Munie took advantage of this when the Hoosiers last traveled to Piscataway, as he dashed behind a vulnerably-positioned Rutgers center back to slot away a go-ahead goal. Though the match ended 2-2, Rutgers’ defensive flaws were evident.
“They do shoot a few more numbers forward at times, and therefore they’re maybe more vulnerable in transition,” Yeagley said. “They’re not going to be a backline that’s going to stay at home and say, ‘now come get us.’ They’ll get their wingbacks forward, (and) their center back is actually pretty adventurous driving with the ball.”
Though Rutgers is the higher seed in Sunday’s final, and possesses home field advantage, Indiana is far from an underdog. Due to its storied history, there is always a significant incentive to knock off the Hoosiers.
“There’s just a consistency of excellence,” Yeagley said. “That’s where the elite programs separate. Every team wants a piece of us.”
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