This Sunday, two of the Big Ten’s most storied programs will square off in a battle for the conference tournament crown, a match that will have serious national seeding and historical implications. On one side there’s Michigan, the uber-talented three seed coming off a swaggering 4-1 demolition of a win in the semifinals. A team who, despite consistently being one of the conference’s best squads, haven’t won a tournament since the turn of the century (their last triumph was in 1999). On the other side you have Rutgers, the undisputed one-seed riding a 12 game unbeaten streak in conference play. Who despite multiple finals appearances, have not yet won a tournament since joining the conference.
But the streaks aren’t what scouts will be watching come Sunday. The real storyline can be found with the players, as both teams are stacked with talent who may very well have their name called come NWSL draft day in December. Here are three things to look out for from a draft perspective.
Frankie Tagliaferri and Sarah Stratigakis: Going head to head at attacking midfield
Sometimes the individual battles within the game are as interesting as the game itself. Stratigakis and Tagliaferri are two of the conference’s (and nation’s) best attacking midfielders, and are both still very much available for selection in the draft. Fifth year players who bring loads of experience, they are the driving creative forces for their respective teams’ powerful offenses. With the pair high on prospective draft boards (SoccerDossier’s mock had Tagliaferri going 7th overall and Stratigakis going 18th), it’s going to be a big game where scouts can compare the two side by side in as high stakes of an environment as you’ll find.
Gabby Provenzano and Alia Martin: Leading their defensive units against two of the conference’s best attacks
It’s no secret that both Rutgers and Michigan are attack-minded teams. Quite literally, the two sides have been the highest scoring teams in the Big Ten this year (the Scarlet Knights have 55 goals, and the Wolverines have 37). These teams will no doubt emphasize the need to limit the weapons the other side has going forward, and the anchors on both teams will be, as they have been for years now, Provenzano and Martin. They’ll look to show why they are first team all-Big Ten honorees from the regular season, and why they were last year as well.
Martin currently projects higher in the SoccerDossier mock (24th overall selection), and has as good of a pedigree as any, but it’s worth noting Provenzano’s most underrated characteristic doesn’t show up on any stat sheet- her leadership. Provenzano is the only senior on the Rutgers backline, fifth year or otherwise, and at certain points of the game during substitute rotations is the only upperclassman in the defense outright. The two-year captain has Rutgers locked in as the Big Ten’s best statistical defense, and she’ll face her biggest task Sunday as she looks to lift Rutgers’ first ever Big Ten tournament trophy.
Who else can have a statement game?
We’ve talked about Tagliaferri and Stratigakis being the showdown of presumptive top twenty picks. But what players that aren’t consensus first or second round players will stand out and make their case on Sunday?
Provenzano is a prime candidate to catch some eyeballs anchoring the Rutgers backline. I said last year that Amirah Ali had been underrated when she fell to the Portland Thorns in the third round, and I’ve said it again plenty of times this year. Now’s another chance for her to showcase how good she is on a national broadcast.
On the non-senior front, future prospects are about to be revealed to the viewers of the women’s soccer world that don’t have Big Ten+ (aka normal people who lead normal lives). Riley Tiernan has put together a phenomenal rookie campaign, and will have the first chance of her career to plant her flag as the top recruit in the class of 2025 on Sunday. The Wolverines have plenty of players looking for a statement game as well.
It’ll be a big night for senior Raleigh Loughman, who leads the Wolverines in points, as well as Meredith Haakenson, who opened the floodgates for Michigan with her opening goal against Purdue on Thursday. The pair should spearhead an experienced Michigan attack from the midfield and wing, respectively, and they’ll be joined on the frontfoot by wide forward Nicki Hernandez, whose production seems to grow by the year. And it’s never too early to start looking at a recent gold medalist in junior Jayde Riviere, perhaps the most exciting fullback to watch in the country.