With just seven conference wins and no NCAA Tournament appearances since 2014, it’s safe to say the ‘Cats are in a bit of a slump as a program. But after a few rebuilding seasons, Tim Lenahan’s side is back and better than ever, boasting a top 25 recruiting class to bolster the countless familiar faces that will be back on the pitch at Martin Stadium this fall. Will this be the year Northwestern gets back to Big Ten prominence? Let’s break it down.
Last season, Northwestern men’s soccer struggled to a 7-12-0 overall record. The Wildcats went 1-7-0 in conference play, finishing 8th out of 9 teams in the Big Ten standings.
The main issue for the ‘Cats was putting the ball in the back of the net. The team averaged just over a goal per match, but in Big Ten play, Lenahan’s men only converted 6 in 8 matches, half of which came in a lopsided 3-0 win over last-place Rutgers.
When looking for bright spots, the focus shifts to the end of the year. Over their final eight matches, the ‘Cats won five and scored 15 of their 22 goals on the season. With a better offensive output, the team posted better results, which bodes well for the 2018 season as the ‘Cats will bring in some new offensive talent and get its young standouts another year of experience in the Big Ten.
Northwestern was a young team in 2017, and its small 5-player graduating class won’t leave Lenahan with too many holes to fill. The biggest losses will come at fullback, with John Moderwell and Riley Kelliher moving on, and up top, with reliable front man Elo Ozumba graduating as well.
Ozumba was often left alone up top in Lenahan’s defensive 4-5-1 formation; his contributions of 7 goals and 5 assists over his four years for Northwestern underscore the importance he held on the team and in Lenahan’s tactics. Moderwell and Kelliher, meanwhile, started as the outside back pairing in all but two of Northwestern’s matches in the 2017 season. Strong in defense and useful up the flanks in attack, the duo will be difficult to replace for the Wildcats.
Graduate transfer midfielder Rouven Wahlfeldt and goalkeeper Francisco Tomasino, both of whom dealt with injuries in 2017, round out the departing class.
Filling the Gaps
For Ozumba, the replacements seem clear. Real Madrid academy player Jose Del Valle will join the ‘Cats in the fall, and there is no doubt he will see time at the No. 9 spot with his 6-foot, 3-inch frame and European-tested goalscoring ability. Rising junior Mac Mazzola (4 goals in the last 6 games) will also have a say up top, especially if Lenahan decides to use two strikers. Northwestern also found useful goalscorers from other spots in 2017, such as first-year midfielder Tommy Katsiyiannis (7 goals), midfielder Sean Lynch (3 goals), and forward Ty Seager (2 goals). Ozumba’s departure may in fact liven up the Northwestern attack, allowing a less direct playing style and providing more interchange among attacking midfielders and forwards.
The shoes of Kelliher and Moderwell will be harder to fill, and who their replacements will be also depends on Lenahan’s tactics. If the coach opts for a back four, Andrew McLeod and Garrett Opperman will presumably man the middle, with Jake Roberge manning one outside back slot and the other up for grabs. If Lenahan continues to experiment with a back five, things get stickier. Mattias Tomasino could slide into the third center back role, leaving the outside back situation similar. He could bring Camden Buescher back into the wingback slot from his usual midfield post. There are limited options, so Lenahan will have to maneuver. Getting the edges of the defense set will be the biggest challenge for Northwestern’s squad this year, and Lenahan’s ability to do so will have a big impact on the success of the ‘Cats this year.
Northwestern owns the 25th-best recruiting class for 2018 according to Top Drawer Soccer, which you can read more about here. The class includes two defenders, two central midfielders, and two attacking players. In the back, Jayson Cyrus was a high school all-American who may be able to help with Northwestern’s outside back conundrum, while coach Lenahan calls 6-foot, 1-inch, 175-pound Julian Zighelboim a “very tough and physical central defender.” In the midfield, Chicago Fire Academy’s Richie Bennett may be the class of this year’s domestic crop, and Lenahan praised Connor McCabe for his combination of motor and technical ability. As for attackers, Bardia Kimiavi is a 5-foot, 7-inch dynamo on the wing … and then there’s Jose Del Valle.
Del Valle is Northwestern’s most exciting recruit in years, if not ever. The No. 9 comes from the Real Madrid academy in Spain with plenty of pedigree. After playing in Los Blancos’ academy since 2007, Del Valle opted this year to come to the States and pursue his education at Northwestern instead of trying to become a professional player in Europe. He got injured during the 2017-2018 season, but in the four previous seasons, he bagged 108 goals for the Madrid academy. For a Northwestern team that only scored 22 goals in 19 matches last season, his nose for the net will be welcomed with open arms. Lenahan has suggested he may need time to adjust to the physicality of Big Ten soccer, but given the gap between NCAA Division I and the European youth academy circuit, I have no doubt he will make an immediate impact for the Wildcats.
Northwestern is primed for a bounce-back season, if not an overwhelmingly impressive one. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, the Big Ten is as good as it’s ever been, with five teams earning NCAA Tournament bids last season. Northwestern is clearly below that group talent-wise, but with the combination of growth from the rising sophomore and junior classes and the poaching presence of Jose Del Valle up front, Chicago’s Big Ten Team could push its way into that upper echelon.
My prediction: 10-10-1 overall, 3-5-0 in conference, good for 6th in the Big Ten.