Instead of listing a preseason all-conference team, the Big Ten puts out a watch list. It seems silly until you realize it’s impossible to make a formation accommodate all of the quality midfielders in the conference.
Eleven midfielders made the 21-player watch list, and that almost feels quantitatively too few. It is a conference where the midfielders are pushed each and every week, a dream situation for MLS scouts.
Reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Clint Ritter reportedly turned down an MLS Homegrown Contract so he could have another season with Northwestern. Ritter and teammates Layth Masri and Lepe Seetane are fully capable of playing keep away from large stretches of games.
And even then, it does not seem entirely a forgone conclusion that Northwestern has the best midfield trio in the conference. Former Big East Freshman of the Year Dylan Mares transferred to Indiana during the offseason, which almost seems unfair. A.J. Corrado, Nikita Kotlov, and Mares are all future professionals, and they run the show for the Hoosiers.
The Big Ten Conference was tightly contested last season with the top five teams all finishing within two points of each other. Given the quality in midfield for every program, it will likely be the same type of finish this fall.
Brief Conference Bio:
2012 Big Ten Regular Season Co-Champions: Penn State/Northwestern
2012 Big Ten Tournament Champion: Michigan State
Offensive Player of the Year: Eriq Zavaleta, Indiana
Defensive Player of the Year: Chris Ritter, Northwestern
Freshman of the Year: Joey Calistri, Northwestern
Coach of the Year: Bob Warming, Penn State
Teams (2012 overall/conference record)
The Hoosiers were selected as the conference favorites in the coaches’ preseason poll, which shouldn’t come as much surprise. Indiana did lose a considerable amount of quality from last year’s squad, but they also picked up an absurd amount of talent in the offseason.
The aforementioned Mares is fully capable of becoming the best player in the conference. After a knee injury derailed his sophomore season, Mares plowed through last season at what looked like less than 100 percent. If he returns to previous highs, watch out Big Ten.
Freshman midfielder/forward Tommy Thompson is about as ready for the professional level as any freshman in the country. If the Hoosiers coaching staff can scheme to get him into good spots in the attack, the worry about replacing Zavaleta will quickly feel like an afterthought.
Michigan State (12-10-1/3-3-0)
Returning Big Ten First Team member Adam Montague headlines the Spartans roster, which checked in at fifth in the conference last season. A dream run though the conference tournament helped the Spartans to a postseason berth, and some deserved national recognition.
This is a team that is built for games in November. Although overlooked by preseason accolades, Kevin Cope is on the short list of best defenders in the conference. The 2012 PDL Defender of the Year will be the key to the Spartans cleaning up a defense that let in 26 goals last year.
The Wildcats had a few games last year where the mantra appeared to be ‘you can have the ball when we’re done here.’ Ritter is the engine that propels this team into a possession-dominating squad. Yet, there has to be someone on the end of the passes to put the ball in the back of the net.
Chicago Fire Academy product Joey Calistri did that in 2012 with nine goals on the way to the Big Ten Freshman of the Year honor. The question for the Wildcats is whether Calistri can duplicate that in 2013? Preseason results have not been convincing on that front with two scoreless draws.
What is the ceiling for Fabio Pereira?
Is it 10 goals and 10 assists? Is it higher? Where do you set the bar for the hottest player in college soccer for the final month of the 2012 season?
Those are a lot of questions, but those are the types of questions that need an answer before projecting Michigan’s season. The Wolverines have talent around Pereira. Tyler Arnone is quality. Transfer Marcos Ugarte is a solid addition to the midfield.
Yet, the productivity of Pereira is ultimate indication of how long this season will last for the Wolverines.
Penn State head coach Bob Warming opened up his media day on Monday by speaking glowingly about his two center backs, Akil Howard and Martin Seiler, and his star goalkeeper Andrew Wolverton.
Typically, this is the commentary of a hoof-and-chase coach, but Penn State is a high-pressing team that just so happens to have its talent in the defense this season. Warming’s group will continue to put the initative on the opposing squad to escape the pressure.
Preseason (and spring) results have been positive with an undefeated record heading into the season.
The Badgers are trying to bounce back from a tough season in 2012. The squad, on paper, is better than a 1-3-2 record and should change that perception this fall.
U.S. U20 Men’s National Team defender AJ Cochran enters his third season with Wisconsin. Cochran needs to be a leader with this group to improve on that putrid record last season.
Freshman Nick Jones showed well at the Development Academy level, and already seems to have a solid role with the Badgers after starting the final preseason game and recording four shots.
Ohio State (6-10-3/0-4-2)
Ohio State is built on its defense, which makes it tough to break down and keeps the Buckeyes in a lot of games. Returners Sage Gardner, Ben Killian, and Alec Lowell are the players to watch this fall.
Freshmen Christian Soldat and Danny Jensen are quality and could add something more to the attack than Ohio State showed last year.