How good is the Big Ten Conference when it comes to the game of soccer? Just ask Jeff Rohrman.
"There's certainly a high caliber of play within our conference," says Rohrman, the UW team's head coach. "My expectation is that again this year, our conference will be the number-one men's soccer conference in the country," as measured by strength of schedule.
And Madison is, after all, a soccer hotbed. According to the Madison Area Youth Soccer Association, somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 area kids participate in soccer clubs. These are committed players whose families pony up serious cash to play in programs designed to develop talent. Kids tabbed for competitive traveling teams in clubs like the Madison '56ers or the Middleton-Yahara Soccer Club can expect to pay four figures a year.
That would seem to represent a built-in audience for the Big Ten Men's Soccer Tournament, which is coming to the McClimon Track and Soccer Complex this week.
Seven conference schools are fielding varsity squads, four of which are ranked nationally. Play kicks off at 10 a.m. Thursday, with Northwestern taking on Penn State, followed by Indiana and Ohio State at 1 p.m. The host Badgers face Michigan at 3:30 p.m., the slot closest to prime time.
Second-round games on Friday are set for 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Should seventh-seeded Wisconsin improbably make it to the championship game, they'll be competing with the Packers/Bears game at noon on Sunday. Curiously, no games are scheduled for Saturday.
Of course, scheduling isn't the only obstacle hardcore soccer fans are faced with this weekend. Forecasts are calling for highs in the 40s with plenty of wind and rain and the possibility of snow.
"It may not be ideal for our fans," says Rohrman. "And certainly it will affect play a little bit, I think."
But bad weather is often an equalizer, and Wisconsin, which occupies the tournament field's lowest seed, might see the inclement conditions as a blessing. By the time the Badgers lace up their cleats late Thursday afternoon, the McClimon field should be plenty soft, which could inhibit second-seeded Michigan's impressive front line.
The Badgers tied Michigan 1-1 when the Wolverines visited Madison in late September. Wisconsin scored off a corner kick in the game's 27th minute and sat on the 1-0 lead until the final seconds, when the Badgers were called for a foul in their own goal box. Michigan defender Michael Holoday converted the penalty kick, denying Wisconsin what would have been its first conference win since 2006.
"I thought we did enough to win the game, and then for five minutes we did enough to tie it or lose it," says Rohrman. "We gave up a penalty kick with 23 seconds left. So it certainly put a sour moment there on what we thought was a good game for us."
Since winning the national championship in 1995, Wisconsin has failed to qualify for post-season play. Rohrman, who took over in 2002, has compiled a 61-63-11 record, but his teams have rarely been in contention for a conference title or an NCAA tournament invitation.
And while a .500 record is nothing to sneeze at in college athletics, particularly in Big Ten soccer, where there's so much parity, the Wisconsin program is flirting with irrelevance. Much like the tie with Michigan can carry the feeling of a loss, a string of .500 seasons start to look similar to a string of losing seasons.
Fans close to the program can't help but mark each anniversary since the 1995 title run. But Rohrman is optimistic that a good showing in this week's tournament could earn the Badgers an NCAA invitation.
"We've put together a pretty good season so far," he says. "We think we can position ourselves for a postseason bid if we do well against Michigan and get ourselves in the semis, and perform well there as well."
Two wins this weekend might not be enough to get the Badgers a postseason bid, but it would send a signal that the program is headed in the right direction.