Pitchside with Parker: Concern for the Cats?

By Parker Johnson

Hi, Wildcat fans. I’m Parker, co-director of WNUR Sports and one of the station’s resident soccer fanatics. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve broadcasted games for Northwestern men’s and women’s soccer, but those teams have brought me some of my best memories at the station without a doubt. I also used to run the “Kickin’ It” podcast for WNUR Sports, but since that podcast is no longer around, I hope to channel my Northwestern soccer thoughts into this column throughout the fall.

I can’t promise to write every week. That would be a fool’s errand given the toll Northwestern puts on its students and my other responsibilities at WNUR. And they definitely won’t all be as long as this one. But I can promise to be here periodically throughout the season to give my thoughts in hopes that we can all go on the journey of this season together. I’ll be sure to cover both the men’s and women’s teams each week, along with whatever other general soccer news tickles my fancy. Let’s get to it.

Kick Off: The women start 0-2

Each column, I’ll “kick off” with the big Northwestern soccer story of the week. Since only one team is in action right now, that designation falls to the women’s team, which lost its first two matches to SMU and Notre Dame by a combined 5-0 last week.

First off, it is worth saying that the ‘Cats had key chances to change the outcome of both matches in the first 45 minutes. After going down 1-0 to a penalty kick against SMU, Northwestern earned one of its own, but Taylor Hallmon missed the opportunity to equalize thanks to a terrific double save from Mustangs keeper Tatum Sutherland. Then, against Notre Dame on Sunday, Regan Steigleder had a golden opportunity to open the scoring, but she was denied from point-blank range by Mattie Interian. It was 0-0 at halftime, but the Irish went on to score four in the second half.

Soccer is not a game of “what if”s, though. Northwestern dominated play against SMU, but credit the Mustangs and wily head coach Brian Petrucelli, who picked up his 404th career win by closing up shop after their converted penalty to sneak out of Evanston with the 1-0 win. Notre Dame capitalized on a wave of second half mistakes from NU to create the 4-0 scoreline that didn’t accurately reflect the gap in the two teams’ abilities. So, with two losses in two, the question looms: should the fans be worried?

Coming into August, the departure of seniors Brenna Lovera (forward), Marisa Viggiano (center mid), Michelle Chernesky (center mid), Hannah Davison (center back) and Kayla Sharples (center back) left huge holes to fill in the heart of the Wildcats’ lineup. Replacing the go-to goalscorer and set piece taker plus an elite pair of center backs was a lot to ask of head coach Michael Moynihan. With no goals scored and five conceded, answers have not come in steady supply just yet.

At center back, Moynihan is working with a unique duo of Taylor Hallmon and Danika Austin. The two are polar opposites in most ways they can be compared. Hallmon is a graduate transfer from last year’s national champion, Florida State, where she was hampered by injury in 2018 after appearing in 41 matches her first two seasons. She is more of a prototypical center half — big and strong with high positional awareness and a knack for leadership along the back line. Austin, meanwhile, is a first-year player who seems to have more traits of a midfielder than a defender. She is relatively small and quick, and loves to step up to intercept passes to opposing forwards and make runs into the midfield. Notice the gap between Hallmon and Austin after Austin steps up before Notre Dame’s fourth goal in the highlights above. If worked correctly, the two new center backs could compliment each other well, but so far, there has been more dissonance than harmony.

Up top, things are less promising. Steigleder has taken over as the creative force in the midfield, but no matter how many skill moves and clever passes she generates, it won’t matter if nobody can finish them. Moynihan has played two up top in both games, starting junior Kayleigh Stahlschmidt and first year Paige Miller each time. They have been unimpressive thus far, but they also will need time to settle in to the 4-1-3-2 system Moynihan has gone with early on. Olivia Stone and Nia Harris are great options off the bench, and once both are healthier, I would expect them to start regularly, but with moderate expectations. Harris is the team’s leading returning goalscorer with … two goals last year. I predict the absence of a consistent goalscorer to be the nagging issue with this team, while the defense will sort itself out relatively soon around the experienced Hallmon, young standout Julietta Thron, and stalwart in goal Mackenzie Wood.

Oh, yeah. Let’s talk about Wood for a second. She was nothing short of outstanding last year, posting eight shutouts and a 0.65 goals against average en route to a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team. But a couple habits of hers have resulted in three of the five goals conceded so far, and she was replaced by Cherish Anderson in the second half against ND.

A true modern goalkeeper, Wood is quick off her line and great with her feet. Her distribution has been key to NU’s play in the first few games, but aggressiveness off her line resulted in conceding the decisive penalty kick against SMU and the deflection that put Notre Dame’s fourth in the back of the net Sunday. Notre Dame’s first goal came directly from a corner kick aimed right at Wood, which highlights a concerning pattern that Wood struggles to read high crosses from set pieces, especially with players around her. Last year, teams keyed in on this toward the end of Big Ten play and Wood conceded several goals down the stretch. I have no doubt opponents will see that and use it as a way to try to beat one of the stingiest back lines in the Big Ten this season. As far as Wood coming off her line, though, it will save way more goals than it creates over the course of the season, so keep the faith. She is, and will continue to be, one of the best shot stoppers in the country even as a sophomore. If she improves her aerial ability, Wood has a chance to go down in history … well, more than she already has.

So, let’s circle back. Should you, the NU women’s soccer ultra, be concerned at the 0-2 start? For now, I’d say no. NU had chances to be in front in both games. This is a team that has featured five or more new players in each starting XI so far, so they will need time to adjust to one another and Moynihan’s system. But you should be more worried about the zero goals scored than the five conceded.

Halftime

These columns may be rather lengthy — you’ll have to forgive me, but I am a long-winded broadcaster by trade. So in each one, I’ll give a break for halftime, where I include something fun from the broader soccer world outside of Evanston. Consider it akin to Scott Van Pelt’s “Best Thing I Saw Today.” It will probably just be an assortment of golazos I come across on Twitter.

Remember Alvaro Negredo? The former Sevilla, Manchester City, and *checks notes* Middlesbrough front man is currently running the channels at Al-Nasr in the UAE Gulf League. No matter the level of competition, this was a worldie, and I felt the need to share.

A word about the men’s team

Tim Lenahan’s bunch haven’t played an official game yet, but they will face a litmus test this weekend at a neutral-site event in Bloomington, IN. The ‘Cats are slated to play a couple of middling Power 5 teams in UCLA (10-9 last season, finished 4th out of 6 in the Pac-12) and Pitt (8-10-1, last in ACC Coastal division). Given Northwestern’s similar standing among the Big Ten, the performance this weekend should be a decent indicator of how the season will go. If NU gets two results, we could be looking at an improved side from last year. If they lose both, the ‘Cats could be in for a long season. For a more in depth breakdown of the men’s team, you can read my season preview to get a sense of the team before opening weekend.

Listen to the cats!

The men’s team is out of town, but we will carry both women’s games this weekend live on WNUR Sports.

Thursday, 8/29 at 7pm CT: Women’s Soccer v Central Michigan. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.

Sunday, 9/1 at 1pm CT: Women’s Soccer v William & Mary. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.

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