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Maryland women’s soccer vs. No. 9 Rutgers preview

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The Terps face an incredible opponent as they still search for their first Big Ten win.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland women’s soccer returns home for the first time since Sept. 26 to face the ninth-ranked Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

“We’re gonna have to play our best, there’s no question about it,” Maryland head coach Ray Leone said. “...They’re leading the league in goals, leading the league in points, leading the league in wins. I mean, they’re flying high, phenomenal team.”

The Terps are coming off a tough 5-1 road loss against Penn State last Friday. Forward Mikayla Dayes produced an equalizer to tie the game at one in the 19th minute, but Penn State ran away with it from there, recording four unanswered goals. The Nittany Lions were powered by top-12 NWSL Draft pick Sam Coffey, who went off for a hat trick against Maryland.

Thursday will be Maryland’s annual pink out game for breast cancer awareness. Maryland players will be donning pink warm-up shirts before kickoff as they acknowledge Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The tilt with the Scarlet Knights will begin at 7 p.m. and air on BTN Plus. Now, let’s take a look at a Rutgers team that is having a fantastic season.

Rutgers Scarlet Knights (11-2, 6-0 Big Ten)

Spring 2021 record: 9-3-4 (6-2-3 Big Ten)

Head Coach Mike O’Neill is in year eight at the helm of the Rutgers women’s soccer program. O’Neill has been loyal to the Rutgers program since 2004 when he joined the staff as its associate head coach. He has enjoyed great success at Rutgers, bringing it to in each of his first seven years as head coach. Not only did O’Neill do that, but he also brought the program to new levels when Rutgers reached its first-ever NCAA Women’s College Cup in 2015.

O’Neill has the Scarlet Knights playing great soccer yet again this season. His squad is riding a seven-match winning streak and is undefeated in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights’ success has been enough to elevate it to top-10 national status. Rutgers was projected to finish second in the 2021 Big Ten Women’s Soccer Preseason Poll but sits three points above second-place Purdue with only four games to go in the regular season.

Players to know

Frankie Tagliaferri, senior midfielder/forward, No. 19 — Transferring over from Big Ten foe Penn State for the 2021 season, Tagliaferri has simply dominated the conference. She leads the Scarlet Knights with 10 goals and 26 points while also adding six assists. This does not come as a surprise to the conference, as Tagliaferri had an unforgettable Penn State career. The Colts Neck, New Jersey, native was a United Soccer Coaches Second Team All-American in the spring and was named to the All-Big Ten Team four times throughout her four years at Penn State.

Amirah Ali, senior forward/midfielder, No. 17 — Ali joins Tagliaferri as the All-Americans that Rutgers is fielding this season. A First Team All-American in the spring, Ali has also been named to the All-Big Ten four times during her career, including three separate First Team honors. Starting all 13 games this season, Ali has put up four goals, five assists and 13 points. Ali was drafted in the third round of January’s NWSL Draft by Portland Thorns FC.

“She’s been one of the perennial players in the league for five years, so you’ve got nothing but respect for her,” Leone said. “She’s such a consistent player, you’ve got to be accounted for at all times.”

Meagan McClelland, senior goalkeeper, No. 1 — It would be unfair to McClelland to spotlight this Rutgers team without her. The Scarlet Knights’ team captain has been nothing short of sensational, only allowing 10 goals in 14 games. She has added on to her 0.80 goals against average mark by playing part in five Nebraska shutouts this season. McClelland’s spring honor of Second Team All-Big Ten was her third all-conference distinction in three years with the program.

Strength

Scoring. Rutgers has unleashed a vigorous offensive attack in 13 games this season. The Scarlet Knights have averaged 3.15 goals per game, adding up to the fifth-most prolific offense in the entire country. Compared to the rest of the conference, Rutgers has been so good that it is more than a goal per game ahead of the next best scoring offense in Penn State. The Scarlet Knights will pose an unbelievable threat to Maryland Thursday night.

Weakness

None. There are no glaring weaknesses in this Rutgers squad. They are ranked incredibly high nationally for a reason. The Scarlet Knights are first or second in the Big Ten in shots, shots on goal, assists, points and corner kicks. Rutgers also posts a top-four scoring defense in the conference and has only improved in conference play, allowing 0.67 goals per Big Ten match. The Scarlet Knights will probably be the toughest opponent Maryland plays this season.

Three things to watch

1. How does the Maryland offense find a way to break through? It has been tough sledding for the Terps’ offense in Big Ten play, scoring only four goals in six games. Mikayla Dayes had a big goal for Maryland in its last game, but it just did not put up enough shots, with only five on the day. Even without forward Alyssa Poarch — who is out for the season with a knee injury — the Terps need to find some sort of spark to get their offense going ahead of the last four Big Ten games.

“I’m glad we scored a goal against Penn State, you know [Mikayla], it was a great finish, she had a couple other opportunities,” Leone said. “So that’s a good thing about just staying on frame, taking a breath, but we need more than just one or two opportunities, we need like seven, eight, nine, 10 opportunities.”

2. Can the Terps put their recent results behind them? A four-goal loss on the road can be tough to bounce back from, but Maryland is making sure to do its best in moving on from that. The elephant in the room is that the Terps have not won a Big Ten game since Oct. 24, 2019, and Leone has referenced that his team is not shying away from it. Maryland has shown flashes in games this season that it can compete in the conference, and this weekend is a big step in proving that.

“Just play the next play,” Leone said. “We’re a good team, and we’re not showing how good we are, and say, so let’s raise our game and show the league that we are the team that played Ohio State and Northwestern and Nebraska down to the wire.”

3. Maryland has had success in its series history with Rutgers, but this year may be a different story. In the all-time series with the Scarlet Knights, the Terps hold a 7-5-2 advantage. Maryland has picked up results in the last two matchups between the two. They played to a scoreless draw on March 13, while the Terps upset No. 20 Rutgers 2-1 on the road on Sept. 28, 2019. It will be a difficult task for Maryland to withstand an elite Rutgers offense and pick up a result Thursday.