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Spencer Parlier | NCAA.com | September 18, 2019

Women’s college soccer: 5 things to know before Big Ten play kicks off

Women's soccer plays of the week

In 2015, Penn State became the first Big Ten team to win the Women's College Cup. The Nittany Lions and the rest of the conference are hoping to add second Big Ten school to the list, as Rutgers, Iowa and Wisconsin are just a few hoping to compete for college soccer's most desirable trophy. 

As evidenced by Minnesota's magical run to take home the 2018 Big Ten tournament title last year as the No. 7 seed, teams will be hoping to take advantage of a conference that proved to be wide open a year ago.

Here's everything you need to know before Big Ten conference play kicks off:

Penn State must improve against ranked teams if it wants to make moves in the postseason

Penn State Athletics Frankie Tagliaferri of Penn State women's soccer Frankie Tagliaferri is one of the veteran midfielders hoping to lead Penn State to their second national championship

Despite having one of the most highly touted midfields in the country, held down by veterans Sam Coffey and Frankie Tagliaferri, Penn State has struggled early on against the stiffest competition. The Nittany Lions' preseason ranking of No. 6 was put to an early test, as they opened their season against MAC Hermann trophy winner Catarina Macario and the Stanford Cardinal in a 2-1 loss. The next ranked team the Nittany Lions played was West Virginia, which resulted in a tie. Penn State also lost to an undefeated Oklahoma State team that is on the rise (now in the top 25), as well as a then-No. 4 Virginia squad. If you are keeping count at home, that's three losses and a tie versus ranked squads putting Penn State's overall record at 4-3-1. The Nittany Lions will have to do better against in-conference competition if they hope to build some confidence for a national tournament run.   

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Keep an eye on the Hawkeyes 

Penn State, Rutgers and Wisconsin were all ranked 1, 2 and 3 respectively in the Big Ten's preseason rankings. All the way down at number 10 was Iowa. The Hawkeyes appear to have used these rankings as motivation, as they sit as the only Big Ten team without a tie or a loss. At 8-0-0, Iowa leads the Big Ten in just about every team category. They lead in goals (25), goals per game (3.13), points (70) and assists (20). The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule hasn't been a cakewalk either. They knocked off a ranked NC State team 1-0 on Sept. 6 and a historically good Notre Dame program 3-2 nine days later. Iowa has received some love for their early season performances though, checking in at No. 19 in this week's United Soccer Coaches Poll. The Hawkeyes will hope to continue their rise in the polls as they kick it off against Indiana on Sept. 20 to start conference play. 

Michigan State's Gia Wahlberg might be women's college soccer's next breakout star 

Michigan State Athletics Gia Wahlberg Michigan State women's soccer Gia Wahlberg is one of the nation's leading goal scorers

Right behind Iowa in goals and goals per game is Michigan State. The Spartans sit second in most team categories in the Big Ten with 20 goals on the season, 58 points and 18 assists. Sparty wouldn't be there if it weren't for their sophomore sensation Gia Wahlberg. Wahlberg leads the Big Ten in goals (8), goals per game (1), points (16) and points per game (2). She is also tied for fifth in the nation for most goals. The South Elgin, Illinois native has scored in four out of the eight games the Spartans have played thus far, including netting four goals against Marshall on August 25. Wahlberg isn't doing it alone though, as midfielder Danielle Stephan is also having a hot start to her season, distributing the ball better than anyone else in the Big Ten. Stephan has 5 assists on the season so far, leading her conference and tied for ninth in the nation. Junior Stephan and sophomore-breakout Wahlberg will hope to prove themselves even further in conference play when the 7-1 Spartans visit Ohio State on Sept. 19. 

Despite losing midfield mainstay Victoria Pickett, Wisconsin still hopes to compete for a Big Ten crown

Heading into the 2019 season, no other team received worse news than Wisconsin. The Badgers found out midfield maestro, 2018 MAC Hermann semifinalist and First Team All-American Victoria Pickett was out for the season with a knee injury. With Pickett out, the pressure has fallen on Wisconsin's defense — and the Badgers have responded. Wisconsin has only allowed four goals, which is second-best in the Big Ten. Wisconsin will also look to Dani Rhodes, their goal-scoring forward who netted 10 goals and 22 points last season. Rhodes already has two goals and two assists through seven games. The 4-2-1 Badgers had one of the tougher nonconference schedules in the conference, losing to defending national champion Florida State and Pac-12 power UCLA. Wisconsin will start Big Ten play against Maryland on Sept. 20. 

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Defending conference champ Minnesota is off to a very slow start 

Minnesota Athletics Minnesota women's soccer Big Ten Champions Minnesota is the defending champion of the Big Ten

Minnesota's run from 7 seed to Big Ten champion in the 2018 Big Ten tournament was one of the great things about women's soccer in November. But it seems last year's miraculous tournament run hasn't continued into the 2019 campaign. The Golden Gophers stumbled out of the gate going 0-4-2 with losses against Cal State Fullerton, Ole Miss, Marquette and Virginia. They notched their first win against NC State, but then fell to South Dakota State. Now Minnesota currently has the worst record in the conference. The Gophers get a chance to prove the skeptics wrong once again though come Sept. 20 when they take on one of the favorites to win the conference, Rutgers. 

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