staff, September 13, 2012

The Big Ten men's soccer season is right around the corner, but the teams have one last weekend of non-conference games to shape their squad and prepare for the grind that has come to characterize Big Ten soccer. This upcoming weekend, the seven schools that represent the conference have matches that may not count toward the Big Ten standings (see standings at, but they will be important come NCAA tournament time.

While the season is young, a win against a quality opponent on the road or a crushing defeat at home could be the game to swing a team's RPI one way or the other.

Starting in preseason and moving through these tune-up games is where teams put in sweat equity in hopes of hoisting the Big Ten trophy and playing deep into the NCAA tournaments come November and December when that sweat turns to ice. Below is a brief preview of the games on the slate for the Big Ten teams this weekend.

NORTHWESTERN (3-0-2) vs. Iona (1-4), Friday 9/14, 7:30 PM; vs. UW-Milwaukee (3-2), Sunday 9/16, 2:00 PM

Head coach Tim Lenahan's Northwestern Wildcats come into this season as the defending double B1G champions and as co-favorites (with Indiana) to repeat. The Wildcats went to overtime in their first four games before finally picking up a regulation win against Rhode Island at the NIU invitational to stay undefeated despite not having hit their stride yet.

Northwestern no longer has that guy that can pull a Super Mario and grab the invincibility star to run past and through opponents like unanimous first Team All-Big Ten selection Oliver Kupe did so many times last year, but freshman Joey Calistri (3 G) is a natural goal scorer who may ultimately decide how far the ?Cats go. The Wildcats need to be aware of Iona. They are 1-4 on the season, but went 15-4-1 last year and famously had four players named to the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy watch list this season so Northwestern needs to make sure they don?t find their groove against them.

Player to Watch: Reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week Chris Ritter (2 G, 2 A) is a savvy playmaker and the key cog in the Wildcats? system in the midfield.

INDIANA (4-1-1) vs. Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (5-1) Friday 9/14, 6:30 PM on

The aforementioned Indiana Hoosiers are as usual, the most talented team in the conference top to bottom. The Hoosiers are just about as sure of a thing to be in the NCAA tournament year in year out as ESPN is to lead off "SportsCenter" with news about a certain New York Jets back-up quarterback.

Indiana traditionally plays the most difficult out of conference schedule of the Big Ten teams and has navigated through a challenging group of opponents this year with their only loss coming to perennial powerhouse, Akron. Coincidentally, IU's opponent, SIU-E, also only has their one loss to the Zips, so this should be a good test for the Hoosiers against a quality opponent that has only surrendered three goals in six matches.

Player to Watch: Last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year and unanimous 1st Team All-Big Ten selection, Eriq Zavaleta (6 G) is the only Hoosier with more than one goal and is primed to be one of the nation?s most potent strikers this season.

MICHIGAN STATE (2-3-1) @ Notre Dame (5-0) Friday 9/14, 6:00 PM; vs. Marquette (5-0) Sunday 9/16, 1:30 PM

The Spartans have not had the start to the season they envisioned in hopes of recovering from an injury-riddled 7-8-4 season. Damon Rensing's crew has a huge opportunity to turn around their season against a couple of unbeaten foes in a measuring stick weekend. If Michigan State can find a way to upset an elite Fighting Irish squad in South Bend, it would be a huge gold star on the resume for the NCAA committee to consider come selection time.

Player to Watch: Redshirt junior centerback Kevin Cope is the heart and soul of the team who looks to be back to his All-Big Ten form with a strong summer being named PDL Defender of the Year after missing all but two matches last season. Michigan State will right the ship due to Cope?s W.A.R.P. (Wins Above Replacement Player) – you know, if NCAA Soccer used that advanced metric.

OHIO STATE (2-3-1) vs. DePaul (1-3) Friday 9/14, 6:30 PM; @ Louisville (2-2) Tuesday 9/18, 6:00 PM

Like Michigan State, the Buckeyes have not had a glowing start to 2012, but expect reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Chris Hegngi (0 G), to break out against a subpar DePaul squad at home. A loss to the Blue Demons in Columbus would put Ohio State in a very deep hole. On the other hand, a win Tuesday at Louisville to a team that went to the Elite Eight last season would be a huge momentum builder heading into conference play.

Player to Watch: Hegngi is a big time talent, who must get going for the Buckeyes to compete, but I don?t think he is on the same level as former POY?s such as Will Bruin, Jason Yeisley and Doug DeMartin who carried their respective teams.

PENN STATE (3-1-1) vs. Albany Friday (2-3) 9/14, 6:00 PM; vs. Adelphi (1-4) Sunday 9/16, 2:30 PM

Penn State is off to a solid start after a surprising run to the Big Ten tourney final as the seven seed last year, but has lost their only true test this season to Georgetown. The Nittany Lions should dispose of their two opponents this weekend, but we won?t know if they are a contender or pretender until conference games kick off.

Player to Watch: The former Horizon League Newcomer of the Year and Butler transfer, Julian Cardona (4 G), could be ready to break out in his second year at Penn State.

WISCONSIN (1-2-2) vs. Western Illinois (2-3) Friday 9/14, 5:00 PM; vs IUPUI (2-4) Sunday 9/16, 11:00 AM

Being a Wisconsin soccer fan lately (post ?95 NCAA title) is akin to trying to click the floating Arby?s pop-up ad blimp on Gametracker. You always think you?re going to be able to hit the ?X? to close, but you always end up missing and ending up on their site, where you don?t want to be. Every year you think Wisconsin has the talent to succeed and make the NCAA tournament, but each year they end up at, err, home. They have two relatively easy games this weekend that must be wins if they want to start to reverse that trend.

Player to Watch: Junior Chris Prince (2 G, 1 A) helped the Badgers improve last year, but will need to make another leap to lead Badgers coach John Trask and co. to the promised land.

MICHIGAN (2-2) @ Marquette (5-0) Friday 9/14, 6:05 PM; vs. Notre Dame (5-0) Sunday 9/16, 1:00 PM

Michigan had an extremely disappointing year (5-14-1) after their magical run to the Final Four. As Rick Pitino would say, Soony Saad and Justin Meram "aren?t walking through that door". New head coach Chaka Daley needs to shore up the defense to compensate for an offensive that is no longer explosive, especially against the two previously noted undefeated teams.

Player to Watch: The6-foot-2 centerback Kofi Opare (2 G) will be the man responsible for tightening things up at the back. He is also tied for the team lead in goals which is not a good sign.

Need the Big Ten soccer BTN TV schedule? It's posted here. Don't forget BTN airs a significant amount of men's soccer online via the Big Ten Digital Network, too.

About Cody Stanley 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