Soccer Report: A first look at the Big Ten race

What a difference a season makes. This time last year it all seemed so clear – Michigan and Indiana were to battle it out for Big Ten honors. The Wolverines looked fresh from a memorable journey to the College Cup, where they lost out to eventual winners Akron in the final four. The Hoosiers had that calm, composed, yet confident feel to their program preseason.

But in my early assessment I clearly discarded one major factor that has an enormous impact on soccer across all levels:  Firepower.

In Will Bruin, Indiana possessed one of the most feared marksmen in the country. The St. Louis native scored a sensational 18 goals in 20 appearances for Todd Yeagley’s team in 2010. Bruin was the catalyst driving Hoosier Army and his loss was certainly Major League Soccer and Houston Dynamo’s gain. Likewise was the deadly tandem of Justin Meram and Soony Saad at Michigan.

The Big Ten Soccer Report is a weekly online-only show that looks at the last action in Big Ten men’s and women’s soccer. Follow the show on Twitter @BTNSoccerReport and find previous shows here.

That duo scored an incredible 36 goals between them while frightening the lives out of opposition defenders with their raw pace and eye for the back of the net. Steve Burns was never going to replace such talent, and that was evident when Fabio Pereira picked up the Golden Boot award in Ann Arbor with a mere four goals last season. So without Bruin, Meram and Saad gracing Big Ten play, Indiana and Michigan finished in a disappointing fourth and sixth place respectively.

So let’s fast-forward to the present Big Ten landscape. Northwestern’s trophy cabinet is looking pretty after a phenomenal season that brought both the Big Ten regular season and Tournament honors back to Evanston. The aforementioned Indiana and Michigan are at different stages after a very deflating 2011 campaign.

Indiana’s Eriq Zavaleta is leading the Hoosiers line in blistering fashion with six early season goals in as many games. Yeagley’s team are ranked 10th in the nation and will look to reclaim their seat among the elite soccer teams in the country.

Michigan, on the other hand, is in a transitional phase. Chaka Daley has taken over from Steve Burns as head coach and become only the second head coach in Michigan history. He will need time to really stamp his footprint on the Wolverines program, their style of play, and their way of thinking. Daley was a professional defender not so long ago, and I’m sure he’s working extremely hard to tighten up a porous Michigan defense that’s conceded six goals in their opening four games.

So can Northwestern repeat the heroics of 2011? I think so. One of the main keys to the Wildcats success was their deep, resourceful squad. They had 10 players bag goals last season and Tim Lenahan used all 22 players when needed. Another intangible is the experienced center-back pairing of Jarrett Baughman and Nikko Boxall, alongside promising goalkeeper Tyler Miller. They may be young, but all three have excellent communication skills, they’re organized and they fit well as a unit.

Tim Lenahan has had to bid farewell to last season’s top scorer Oliver Kupe and team captain Peter O’Neill, but I feel they have suitable replacements to carry on. Freshman striker Joey Calistri looks like a real find for the ‘Cats. The local lad has already scored three goals in the opening five games, but it’s his work rate and attitude that stands out.

The Big Ten race promises to be compelling from start to finish, with plenty of upsets along the way. All seven schools have excellent coaches that will have a tactical plan in place for their season, but unless they possess a natural goalscorer in their ranks, I’m afraid they’ll be left behind in the hunt for honors. Indiana, Northwestern and Ohio State will compete for the Big Ten title this year because Eriq Zavaleta, Joey Calistri and Chris Hegngi will hit double-digits.

I’m not sure Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan possess that “X” factor. Yes, there are obviously plenty of other factors that will come into play throughout the season, but if you look at title winning teams, whether it’s in the Champions League or in the Big Ten, they’ll always have a talisman that scores big time goals in big time games.

Let the shootout begin!

U-20 World Cup champions:  Many congratulations to Penn State’s Maya Hayes, Taylor Schram and Illinois’ Vanessa DiBernardo on winning the U-20 World Cup with the U.S. National team in Tokyo on Saturday. Fighting Illini head coach Janet Rayfield was also part of the successful party as she was the teams Assistant Head Coach.

Maya Hayes scored four goals in the tournament, including a hat trick in their opening game win over Ghana. While Illini star, DiBernardo also netted en route to her team’s 2-1 OT win over Korea DPR. It’s an incredible achievement, and we look forward to welcoming the stars back to Big Ten play soon.

Kevin Egan is the host of the BTN Soccer Report, an online-only weekly show spotlighting Big Ten men’s and women’s soccer. Want to send a note to Egan about Big Ten soccer and the BTN Internet show? Use the form below and subscribe to the Big Ten Soccer Report RSS here.

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