Soccer Previews: Race leaders make their move

As we enter the second half of Big Ten play, a clear hierarchy has been established in the conference. At 3-0 and 2-0 respectively, perennial national power Indiana and defending Big Ten champion Northwestern are firmly in the apex of the Big Ten soccer pyramid. Penn State, Michigan and Michigan State are battling it out in the middle class with a win apiece, while Wisconsin and Ohio State are sitting in the base winless searching for answers.

The Hoosiers took care of business last weekend at home against the hapless Badgers. Now, with the Hoosiers having the weekend off of Big Ten play, the onus is on the Wildcats to do the same when the Buckeyes travel to Evanston on Sunday.

Can Northwestern regain a share of first place or will Ohio State spoil the party? Will one of middle three teams close the gap and show they can be a contender moving forward?  Those questions will be answered in a pivotal weekend of soccer upcoming.

MICHIGAN (4-5-1, 1-1-1) @ WISCONSIN (3-6-3, 0-2)
Saturday at 8 p.m. ET

The Wolverines travel to Madison where they will face John Trask’s struggling Badger squad. Wisconsin has not played inspiring soccer on either side of the ball thus far which leaves the door open for Michigan to move up the table.

Michigan has talent in every third of the field – especially with masked man and centerback Kofi Opare back from injury – but playing for 90 minutes as a disciplined unit is a concern. Their fiery, red-headed keeper Adam Grinwis has the swagger and ability to carry a team, yet if the mental lapses in front of him continue Michigan will remain a mediocre side.

Michigan head coach Chaka Daley has a long track record of success in the Big East with Providence as a coach and a player, and he seems to have the respect of his players at Michigan. He knows the issues his team has and admitted it on the BTN Soccer Report. I think his players will respond and begin to clean it up against the Badgers. Michigan also travels to No. 3 Akron for a Tuesday night match (7:30 PM ET).

Prediction: Michigan 2, Wisconsin 1

OHIO STATE (5-7-1, 0-3-0) @ NORTHWESTERN (8-2-2, 2-0)
Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO

Northwestern has their confidence back with a huge win over the seventh ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in Evanston Tuesday night after two non-conference defeats led to a tumble out of the Top 25.

The Wildcats dictated the pace in the first half and outplayed Notre Dame, who defeated Indiana earlier this season, scoring two early and then showed their championship mettle by holding on against the uber-talented Irish.

Along with the team finding their stride again, freshman striker Joey Calistri (5 G) got a much-needed tally on a clinical finish after going five games scoreless. Another encouraging sign for the Wildcats was diminutive midfielder Lepe Seetane looking healthy after battling injuries all year, scoring a brilliant highlight reel goal and displaying the skill that made him a three-time youth All-American.

Ohio State on the other hand, is reeling at 0-3 in conference play. John Bluem has not been happy with the effort of his team so look for a couple personnel changes and for the Buckeyes to come out high pressure on Sunday.

Ohio State will not lay down, but expect senior captain centerback Jarrett Baughman, who kept the team organized without his red-card suspended partner Nikko Boxall against Notre Dame, to have the Wildcats focused for Chris Hegngi and company preventing a letdown after an emotional non-conference victory.

Prediction: Northwestern 2, Ohio State 0

MICHIGAN STATE (5-6-1, 1-1) @ PENN STATE (6-4-2, 1-1-1)
Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on BTN/BTN2GO

The Spartans come to Happy Valley quietly beginning to play well winning their last two and going 3-2 in their last five with their two losses coming in double overtime to the aforementioned Northwestern Wildcats and unbeaten No. 4 Marquette Golden Eagles (12-0).

Michigan State will look to combine and attack the flanks where Michigan had some success and created dangerous chances versus Penn State last week and the Nittany Lions will counter with a more direct approach into target forwards Julian Cardona (5 G, 1 A) and Daniel Burnham (2 G, 2 A).

This one should be a good one with two evenly matched teams. Penn State is tough to beat at home this season at 5-2-1, but Michigan State has actually performed better away from East Lansing with a 3-2 record (2-4-1 at home). These two teams will need more than 90 minutes to find a winner and the Spartans will continue their ascent with a victory.

Prediction: Michigan State 2, Penn State 1

No. 12 INDIANA (9-2-2, 3-0) vs. Butler (2-4-4)
Tuesday at 7:30 PM ET

Big Ten defenders get the weekend off from having to deal with Eriq Zavaleta, who will be Butler’s problem for the time being. The former US U-17 Men’s National team centerback now has 12 goals in 13 matches for the Hoosiers following up a two goal performance against Wisconsin by adding another tally in a 2-2 draw versus Big East opponent Louisville Wednesday night. If he keeps this up, the sophomore forward could be wreaking havoc on MLS defenses come this time next year, to the delight of the other Big Ten coaches, with a potential Generation adidas contract looming.

Additionally, speedster Nikita Kotlov found his first goal of the season against the Cardinals. If he can find the form that led him to a nine goal, First-Team All Big Ten campaign a year ago opposing defenses will have a world of problems stopping the Hoosiers.

Indiana will look to avoid the vaunted weekday let-down that has troubled a few other Big Ten teams this year. Co-favorite Northwestern has fallen to two of their non-conference in-state foes, but I don’t think the same happens to Indiana against the Bulldogs.

Prediction: Indiana 3, Butler 0

Overall, it should be another exciting weekend of Big Ten soccer with teams desperate for a win to kick off the stretch run of conference play.

About Cody Stanley BTN.com contributor Cody Stanley is a former captain of the Northwestern men’s soccer team. He’ll be offering his weekly previews of Big Ten men’s soccer this season BTN.com.

Cody Stanley is a 2011 Northwestern University graduate from Lansing, IL who was captain of the varsity men’s soccer team at NU. He writes for BTN.com and SB Nation's Northwestern blog, Sippin' On Purple. Cody can be followed on twitter @cody_stanley5.

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