In a match that was as good as advertised, top-seeded Indiana men’s soccer took home its 16th Big Ten Tournament Championship, defeating the second-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions 1-0 on Sunday in Bloomington. The victory marks another milestone in what has been a remarkable turnaround for Todd Yeagley’s squad.
Sam Sarver is Kris Shakes’ kryptonite
Indiana scored three goals in two matches versus Penn State this season, which on its own is no easy task. Penn State fifth-year goalkeeper Kris Shakes was named the 2023 Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, posting seven shutouts and a 0.79 goals-against average in 19 starts. Yet, there was one man he had no answer for: Sam Sarver. Sarver scored all three of Indiana’s goals versus the Nittany Lions this year, and his final goal was undoubtedly the most critical.
With just over seven minutes left in the first half, Sarver bent a low shot around the outstretched left arm of Shakes for the only goal of the match. It was all Indiana needed to send the Nittany Lions home, with the Hoosiers’ back line holding strong as Penn State threatened throughout the second half. Shakes was phenomenal in net both in this match and throughout the season, but there is something about Sarver that he was unable to stop throughout the year.
It is somewhat fitting that even as other offensive weapons such as Maouloune Goumballe and Tommy Mihalic have found form as of late, Indiana took home the Big Ten Double on the back of its most consistent player. Sarver has now scored eight goals this season, twice as many as any other Hoosier. A force to be reckoned with throughout the season, Sarver came through when Indiana needed it most.
The back line is back
It was no secret that Indiana conceding three goals to Michigan in the Big Ten Semifinal was uncharacteristic. The back line looked sloppy. Granted, one of those three goals was scored on a penalty kick, but Michigan more or less was able to apply pressure at will. Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said he thought the back line was “fine” heading into Sunday’s match, and he was right. Co-captain and defensive anchor Joey Maher was sound at the left center back position, with Jansen Miller consistently closing down angles and giving Nittany Lion attackers very little breathing room. Maher had some key shot blocks in the second half of Sunday’s match, ensuring that even when Penn State threatened, they did not have many clear looks on net.
Even Collins Oduro got in on the fun, hustling back to cut down a Penn State counterattack after an Indiana turnover in the midfield. When called upon, JT Harms was more than up to the task. Harms matched Shakes, posting his seventh clean sheet of the season on Sunday. Good defense creates offense, and the Hoosiers dominated time of possession until late in the second half. Penn State controlled possession on its half of the field for the final few minutes, but Indiana clogged up passing lanes and held strong with constant on-ball pressure.
Looking at the big picture, Indiana has conceded multiple goals on just two occasions: The Big Ten Semifinal versus No. 5 Michigan (three) and a regular-season loss at No. 18 Michigan State (two). In both of those games, Indiana’s opponents benefited from a penalty kick. All this is to say, the Hoosiers’ defense has been remarkable this season and it shows no signs of letting up.
The turnaround is nowhere close to done
Every team wants to win a national championship. That should not come as a surprise. Speaking to Indiana players and coaches throughout this run, one thing is clear: They want to avenge last year’s loss to Syracuse in the College Cup Final. While there are momentary celebrations, the players have one thing on their minds, and that is to be in Louisville for the College Cup in December.
Yeagley cites it as a compliment to the program that his squad is playing its best soccer at the end of the season. Thinking back, it is incredible that this Indiana team went from the brink of the NCAA Tournament to receiving an automatic bid. They more closely resemble a freight train rather than a soccer team. In recent matches, the Hoosiers have had better scoring opportunities than they did at the start of the season. Sure, they took over 30 shots against DePaul back in late August, but so many of those shots were non-competitive.
Now, they create good looks from just about anywhere, whether it is Mihalic driving down the left wing or Sarver letting it rip from 20 yards out. The shot selection continues to improve, the discipline is still there and the finishing has finally manifested. There was a sentiment during the early season struggles: “The goals will come.” The players may have spoken it into existence, because that is exactly what has happened.
There is a saying in baseball: “Momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.” Indiana men’s soccer is on a red-hot run of form, having won nine of its past 10 matches. Depending on how the NCAA Tournament seeding shakes out, the Hoosiers might run into a brick wall and see their College Cup hopes dashed. Or, they may do what they have done so many times before and make another storybook run at an ever-elusive ninth national title thanks to timely offense and a brick wall for a back line.
Todd Yeagley and Co. are no strangers to this scenario. In fact, they welcome the pressure. Yeagley preaches, “Pressure is a privilege.”