It might only be early September and the Hoosiers’ first conference game of the season, but it could possibly be the most important game on the Big Ten schedule.
No. 4 IU will face its third consecutive ranked opponent Friday night when No. 5 Maryland visits Bloomington. The Terrapins were picked to finish first in the conference preseason poll, and the Hoosiers were slated to finish second.
Now it’s time to put the pencil and paper aside and let these two soccer powerhouses duel it out on the pitch.
“It’s a tough one to open certainly because you always like to start on the winning side of the ledger, and this is going to be as tough of game we face the rest of the year,” IU Coach Todd Yeagley said. “We can’t get too high or too low regardless of how this game goes because we have a lot of season left.”
The Hoosiers will be without junior defender Grant Lillard against Maryland after he quickly earned two yellow cards in the first half against Stanford resulting in a red card. The cards resulted in an ejection against the Cardinal and a one-game suspension for the following match, which Lillard will serve Friday.
At 6-foot-4, Lillard is a key component in the Hoosier backline, but without him IU will have to explore secondary options at center back.
Yeagley said senior defender Billy McConnell will most likely shift over from right back to center back, and sophomore defenders Timmy Mehl and Rece Buckmaster could also find some time on the backline.
“We have a lot of guys we can throw in, and I’m confident in all of them,” Lillard said. “Playing against Maryland is tough. It’s a fun game, fast-paced. They’re always just a great matchup, and I think whoever steps in is going to do a great job.”
Maryland features its own version of Lillard on defense with 6-foot-5 senior Alex Crognale. Crognale has played a key role for the Terrapins, has scored one goal and has helped the team concede just three goals in the first four games of the year.
Yeagley said it was a shame Lillard is unavailable to play this Friday because the matchup between the top two center backs in the country is lost. However, he said he thought of other ways Lillard could help out in practice when scouting Maryland.
“We’ll put Grant on the scout team like Crognale,” Yeagley said. “Crognale is one of the premier center backs in the country, and we’ll use Grant to imitate his size, because you can’t imitate 6-foot-4 unless you are 6-foot-4. Grant will bring great energy this week, so I think he’ll be very positive.”
The Terrapins also showcase reigning Big Ten offensive player of the week sophomore forward Gordon Wild, who is tied for fourth in the NCAA with five goals this season. Wild scored the game-winning goal against No. 24 Georgetown last week and then netted two more goals against South Florida.
IU is searching for its first win against Maryland since 2004 when the Terrapins were members of the ACC and squared off against the Hoosiers in the semifinals of the College Cup. Since Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2014, IU is 0-3-1 against them with two losses coming in the Big Ten tournament.
“Coach did a great job with setting us up for conference with a strong strength of schedule,” Lillard said. “Playing those four games were not tune-up games at all, so it was fun to dive in and play against good competition.”