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Maryland women’s soccer vs Michigan State preview

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The Terps look to start their season off on the right foot.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland women’s soccer’s last game took place 475 days ago. That game, a 3-0 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, serves as a now-distant memory of a normal game, during a normal season, during a normal year. How quickly things change.

The team will take the field this Saturday under very different circumstances. An 11-game season leaves very little room for error, so the Terps will need to establish a winning way early on if they want a crack at making the four-team Big Ten Tournament.

There will be no fans in attendance, masks on the sidelines and mandatory testing before the game. Even the venue is different for the first game: the Terps will play at Maryland Stadium instead of Ludwig Field thanks to the snow that was unceremoniously dumped on College Park on Thursday. Saturday’s game will be the first ever women’s soccer game played there.

As they face a potential season of turmoil, one thing the Terps have going for them is relatively little offseason turnover. Maryland returns eight starters from the team’s final game of the 2019 season. Preseason Big Ten Players to Watch List members Alyssa Poarch, Mikayla Dayes, and Malikae Dayes highlight a group of returners hungry to continue the team’s recent success.

Maryland was voted 12th in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ Poll, a result that proves just how hard-fought the conference will be this season. The Terps return most of their talent from last season, in which they finished sixth in the conference standings.

The season opener will showcase two teams trying to fight their way into the upper echelon of the Big Ten. The game will kick off Saturday at 4:30 p.m. and will air on BTN Plus.

Michigan State Spartans

2019 season: 8-10-1 (1-9-1, Big Ten)

Head Coach Tom Saxton is entering his 30th season at the helm of the Michigan State women’s soccer program. Saxton was hired in 1991 and has 271 wins over his tenure as head coach.

Last season was one of the most disappointing under Saxton, with the team floundering in conference play, finishing with a 13.64% in-conference win percentage. A 1-9-1 conference record is disappointing for any coach, but especially for an institution like Saxton. The Spartans have posted 12 winning seasons out of the last 20, making last season an abnormally low point for the squad.

This season could be even worse for Michigan State. The Spartans begin the season where they ended the 2019 season: dead last. This time, it’s in the preseason coaches’ poll. The team also failed to bring in new talent (its four-person recruiting class has no real standouts).

Players to Know

Junior forward Gia Wahlberg (No. 15) — Wahlberg led the Spartans in goals (9) and shots on goal (19) last season. She also proved to have a clutch gene, netting a team-leading four game winners. Wahlberg is one of three Spartans to make this season’s Big Ten Preseason Honors list

Despite leading the team in numerous categories, Wahlberg failed to score a goal in the last five games of the season. This cold streak, plus a four-goal outburst in the Spartans’ second game of the 2019 season against Marshall, helps put Wahlberg’s nine goals in perspective. Either way, she will be the leader on the front line for the Spartans this season and more than likely Maryland defender Malikae Dayes’ number one task.

Sophomore forward Paige Webber (No. 2) — Webber was a revelation for the Spartans as a freshman last season. She was the only newcomer to start every game and ended the season with 14 points, six goals, and two game-winners. If there is hope for Michigan State this season, it starts with Webber, who will need to break out in a big way to give the team a fighting chance.

Redshirt Sophomore goalie Lauren Kozal (No. 00) — Unlike Maryland, Michigan State’s starting goalie position is in the firm grasp of a singular player, which in this case is the 5-foot-10 Kozal. Kozal started every game last season and performed admirably despite her team’s less than admirable results. Kozal had five shutouts last season, including two in conference play against Purdue and Minnesota. She posted 79 total saves and a 1.52 goals against average. Unless there is a drastic change made, Kozal figures to be Saxton’s number one choice in goal every game this season.

Strength

Goalkeeping. Whew, this one was hard. It really is true that Michigan State is on the bottom of the Big Ten in just about every category. Where the Spartans have a strong building block is Kozal in goal. Kozal joins Wahlberg and sophomore defender Bria Schrotenboer on the Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch List. Kozal may break her career-high of 11 saves this season, especially considering the amount of shots that will likely occur on a per-game basis against this Spartan team.

Weakness

Shot attempts. At the end of the 2019 season, not a single Spartan made the top 10 players of the Big Ten in shot attempts or shots per game. The Michigan State offense simply has to get their forwards more open shots this season, and allow Wahlberg and Webber the attempts needed to find the goal. It’s like Michael Scott said in that quote from Wayne Gretzky, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” A repeat of the team’s timid offense, which ended 10th in the conference in overall shot attempts, would yield poor results again this season.

For the record, Maryland forward Alyssa Poarch was third in shot attempts and second in shots per game last season. The Terps finished sixth overall in total shots taken.

Three Things to Watch

  1. How will Nicole Kwozca perform as the Terrapins’ starting goalie? After spending last season as the backup to Erin Seppi, Kwozca is ready to take the spotlight. Kwozca played in two games last season. The sophomore from Livingston, N.J. allowed just one goal in 124 minutes of playing time. With a lot more pressure as the team’s main last line of defense, will Kwozca play with good form to begin the season, or crack?
  2. Will Alyssa Poarch continue to dazzle? This is less of a question and more of a statement, because Alyssa Poarch is really good at the game of soccer. Poarch took her game to another level in 2019 during her redshirt sophomore season. Her eight goals and 19 points were both team highs, and Poarch’s performances often transcended statistics. Her speed and footwork, combined with a knack for always being in the right place, are what make Poarch an asset anywhere on the field.
  3. How has the team changed over the long break? Four hundred days is a long time by nearly any measure, especially in the life of a college athlete. There is no doubt there will be growing pains as the team returns to a regular season schedule. How the players deal with the issues that may arise will play a big part in Maryland’s chances at a successful season. The team is known for its good chemistry, and it must play show that right away if it doesn’t want to give away winnable games early on.