Season Preview: Men’s Soccer

By Parker Johnson

There’s been a whole lot of soccer going on this summer. Whether your loyalty lies with South America (Copa America), Europe (congrats to Portugal on the debut Nations League title), Africa (AFCON), or the good ol’ Yanks trying to prove themselves to the world (Women’s World Cup … well, and the Gold Cup, I guess), there’s been more than enough soccer to fill your various appetites. But we come together here today to put all that international pageantry aside and talk about the one team we all care about: the Northwestern Wildcats.

This is my third year in a row previewing the men’s soccer team, so I’ll follow the same format as 2018 and 2017. If you’re new here, welcome! We love the ‘Cats, and WNUR Sports broadcasts every home game live throughout the season, so be sure to check those out this fall. Let’s get into it.

2018 Review

Before last season, I wrote that Northwestern had just seven conference wins and no NCAA Tournament appearances since 2014. Unfortunately, those numbers still stand. Northwestern finished the year 6-9-5 overall and 0-5-3 in the Big Ten. The ‘Cats finished 8th in the conference and then beat 9-seed Ohio State in the conference tournament before going down to 1-seed Indiana in overtime to end the season.

The story of the season for Northwestern was an unsual one, but ask any fan or follower of the team and they would tell you: the Wildcats were Overtime Dons. Of the 20 games played last year, 10 went to overtime. That’s right, the odds of a Northwestern game going to overtime last year were greater than the odds of a Steph Curry making any given 3-pointer last year (he shot 43.7 percent). The agonizing part for Northwestern supporters was that NU only came away with one lone win from those 10 overtime contests, going 1-4-5.

There’s no definitive way to analyze such a performance because of its outlier status. A pessimist might say that Northwestern wasn’t clutch and its defensive tactics cost the team crucial points. An optimist might point out that if Northwestern just won half of its overtime appearances — which are “golden goal” format in the NCAA, I should add — it could’ve finished as high as 5th in the Big Ten. A sports scientist would probably add that playing that many extra minutes afftected the team’s fitness late in the season. However you want to interpret the results, 2018 was a disappointing season. That said, it’s an easy one to write off given that it almost certainly won’t repeat itself this year. The bigger question is which way those 10 overtime results will swing for the Wildcats, assuming they don’t play as many extra periods this year.

Key Departures

Chicago’s Big Ten Team will graduate six players from its 2018 squad: Camden Buescher, Jake Roberge, Emmett Gordon, Ben Miller, Braden Thuraisingham and John Moderwell.

The crucial losses are those of Buescher and Moderwell. The elder of the Moderwell brothers, John had been with the Wildcats since 2014. He redshirted his first year and then amassed 72 appearances and 56 starts for Tim Lenahan. He was always a reliable outside back with a knack for one-on-one defending and a strong work rate up the wing.

The loss of Buescher hits a bit harder, though. I could wax poetic about his unending versatility, steely resolve and propensity for moments of magic. But why do that when I could just insert this video of him scoring an absolute BANGER to take the lead against Maryland last September that ended up on the SportsCenter Top 10? Shoutout to WNUR Sports’ own Noah Coffman with the call.

Buescher’s goalscoring from the midfield will be the single hardest thing to replace for the Wildcats in 2019. His seven goals last season led the team, while only one other player (Matt Moderwell with five) had more than two.

Returning Players

The Wildcats will return nine of 11 starters next year, but there are still plenty of question marks, most notably in the goalscoring department. Moderwell is the leading returning goalscorer with five, but last year he played the “super sub” role. He started just one game in 2018, so it’s fair to wonder if he can keep the same productivity if he’s forced into more minutes. Last year, it seemed that Lenahan only had full faith in one true striker, Ty Seager. The rising senior has the athleticism and aerial ability to be a long ball threat, but his touch and finishing leave plenty to be desired (two goals in 14 starts up top). Mac Mazzola and Jose Del Valle both saw minutes at center forward as well, but neither asserted himself enough to become a go-to player under Lenahan.

Northwestern mustered just four goals in eight conference games, and the lack of goals was largely due to the limited returns of two players expected to do much more last season. Tommy Katsiyannis is Northwestern’s number 10, and after scoring six goals in the last six games to end his freshman campaign in 2017, he posted just one goal and three assists last season. His future is in question as he is not listed on the current 2019 roster. A request for clarity on Katsiyannis’ status from a team spokesperson was not returned. Meanwhile, Del Valle came in as a first-year last season with a Real Madrid pedigree, but he struggled to adapt to the Big Ten style of play. Lenahan he expected Del Valle to have a learning curve, but the Spanish forward also had to deal with injuries throughout the season, preventing him from finding consistent form. He finished the season with two goals and three assists in 12 appearances. Del Valle and Mazzola did score against Real Madrid’s U-18 squad during Northwestern’s European tour this spring, so perhaps they can be two players to help solve the goalscoring equation this fall.

The best news for Northwestern is that the sturdy defence that has kept the Wildcats in so many games last year remains mostly intact. Garret Opperman has become one of the most consistent center backs in the Big Ten, while Julian Zighelboim was a revelation at right back in his first season in Evanston. Goalkeeper Miha Miskovic, the brightest star for NU behind Buescher in 2018, is back between the pipes after leading the conference in saves and shutouts last season. Andrew McLeod has been very good when healthy in his career, so the senior should fill the other center back role. Richie Bennett was a brick wall playing at the base of midfield as a first-year and will slide back in to the number 6 role this fall. The only hole is left back sans Moderwell, but if Lenahan can find a replacement, there are strong enough players across the back to cover some deficiencies.

Fresh Faces

Northwestern hauled in nine recruits this year, comprised of two “athletic attacking players,” three “versatile midfield players,” three “physical defenders” and a goalkeeper, according to a statement from Lenahan.

Defender Jack Ratterman and midfielders Eric Smits and Vicente Castro may be the most influential trio of first-years. Lenahan described them all as left-sided players, which in his words “certainly fills a need with this group.” As mentioned, the left back spot is open, and Katsiyannis was most often deployed as a left wing.

You can read more about the exciting class of 2023 here.

Prediction

Having written this preview for three straight years and having covered this team even longer, certain patterns emerge. I’m not exactly going out on a limb here, but I think Northwestern will boast a very strong defence as Miskovic continues to prove himself one of the best goalkeepers in the league behind a quality back line. But further up the pitch, I see more questions than answers. This was the worst offense in the Big Ten last year, and without Katsiyannis and Buescher, I find that unlikely to change. Northwestern will hold talented Big Ten foes close and probably post some 0-0 results against teams it should be beating.

My prediction: 8-7-5 overall, 1-4-3 in conference play, good for 8th in the Big Ten.

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