By Parker Johnson
In honor of Labor Day weekend, it appears our favorite ‘Cats decided to put in some serious work on the pitch, with both the men’s and women’s teams coming away with their first wins of the young season.
If you missed last week’s opening edition of Pitchside, I’ll let you know what this is all about before we start things off. Basically, my goal is to write a recurring Northwestern soccer column throughout the season that covers both the women and the men. I hope is that it gives us Wildcats fans a place to interact and discuss the eventful journey that is an NCAA soccer season. If you want to get involved in the conversation with your own thoughts on the ‘Cats, leave a comment on this post or ask me on Twitter (@parkerkjohnson) and I will respond in the next column! Alright, it’s that time …
kickoff: 3 points in the bag
Not focusing on one team in particular here, because the big news in both camps from the weekend’s games was getting the first win of the season. Here’s why both were so significant.
For the women, a win was, to say the least, a long time coming. They should have gotten a result against now-ranked SMU and they had chances to go ahead in the first 45 against Notre Dame in week 1. Then on Thursday, against an overmatched Central Michigan side, the Wildcats again dominated the match, but came within five minutes of a loss before Rowan Lapi’s thundering strike forced overtime. The game ended as a 1-1 draw. The breakthrough finally came Sunday, when two goals in the span of six second-half minutes were enough to see NU to a 2-1 victory against William & Mary. The relief on the faces of the players was evident, as Northwestern finally grabbed a game by the scruff of the neck and got the result it deserved.
Here are the highlights from the weekend from our broadcast team: myself, Jake Liker, and Henry Ettinger:
Meanwhile, the men were in Bloomington, Indiana for a pair of neutral-site games that served as a nice indicator for where the team is at as it jumps into non-conference play. The ‘Cats took on UCLA on Friday, a game that (surprise) went to overtime before the Bruins got the golden goal to earn a 1-0 result. Northwestern started slow before outshooting UCLA 12-7 in the second half, forcing Justin Garces into seven saves in the second period, but just couldn’t hold on in the extra period. UCLA was quality competition — they took No. 2 Indiana to double-overtime before falling 2-1 on Sunday — so the fact that the ‘Cats had so many chances to win it in the second half was a decent way to start the season.
The win came in game two on Sunday against ACC foe Pitt. It was a typically gritty performance from Northwestern. The ‘Cats couldn’t believe their luck when Miha Miskovic’s long punt in the 2nd minute fell directly to Bardia Kimiavi in Pitt’s box and the sophomore tucked it away for the 1-0 lead. NU simply had to hold on for 88 minutes — something Tim Lenahan’s team is particularly good at — and it did just that. A handful of top saves from Miskovic and a crucial goal line clearance from Richie Bennett went a long way to preserve the result in a game that had as many combined fouls as shots between the two teams (25).
The takeaway here: both teams ended the weekend with lots to build on. The men’s team’s results did not really teach us anything new about the ‘Cats, but they showed that this team can win games against Power 5 opponents. Considering they finished with a winless conference record last year, that’s an important step. Lenahan would’ve probably targeted four points from the pair of games, but three isn’t too shabby. The women got their first goal of the year against CMU and put together their best 90 minutes of the season against W&M, so Michael Moynihan has lots to be excited about as well, even if it came against slightly outmatched opponents.
Looking for a golazo for your halftime entertainment? Well, look no further than Martin Stadium, where first-year Aurea Martin opened her Northwestern account with a goal most players can only dream of. WNUR Sports’ Jake Liker had the call.
Hazard-esque from Northwestern’s number 7. Early candidate for goal of the season. And it looks even better in slo-mo.
Talking Tactics: Is that Steigleder at the back?
Besides the fact that she wears the number 4 on her back, nothing about Regan Steigleder screams “defender.” As I wrote last week, she’s Northwestern’s most creative and experienced midfielder, so you would expect Moynihan to trot her out in the center of the park every single game this season. But nothing has gone to expectation so far for Moynihan’s crew, and he has tried countless solutions to spark offensive production.
The most recent experiment was to put Steigleder in defense. Against Central Michigan, the ‘Cats trailed 1-0 for most of the game after giving up an early goal on the counter in the 14th minute. Still struggling to equalize well into the second half, Moynihan switched NU from the 4-1-3-2 that he has started every game with to a 3-5-2 system. The result of that switch is pushing the outside backs to wingbacks, and trading one of the midfield four for an extra center back. Surprisingly, the midfielder he chose to send back was Steigleder. She doesn’t exactly look like a typical center back, but then again, neither does Danika Austin, so this follows a pattern of Moynihan trading size for speed and skill in the back.
The biggest benefit of Steigleder as a defender is her passing and calmness on the ball. Moynihan has pushed the Wildcats to play out of the back whenever possible, and having Steigleder back there definitely makes it less nerve-wracking from an onlooker’s perspective. After staying with the 3-5-2 for about 10 minutes, the ‘Cats moved back to a traditional 4-3-3 formation, which is when Steigleder began to excel. The junior was now at left back, and since CMU played with a very low line of pressure looking to protect its 1-0 lead, Steigleder had space to take the ball up the left flank or through the center every time she picked it up. She owned the left wing for the remainder of regulation plus overtime, and was crucial to the build up of Lapi’s equalizer. She then played the full 90 at left back against William & Mary on Sunday and had another very good performance, including some impressive defensive plays, as the Wildcats got their first win of the season.
While Steigleder’s move was a bit of a surprise, it’s not an unprecedented one at the pro level. Many ex-midfielders and ex-attackers get converted to outside back and continue to perform at the highest level. Notable examples include USWNT’s Crystal Dunn, Manchester United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Arsenal’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles. This doesn’t mean Steigleder will be an outside back forever, but it does give Northwestern another option, especially against teams who like to sit back and don’t pressure the opponent’s back line. Against teams that will have more of the ball, I would guess that Moynihan will want Steigleder back in the center, since her role at left back would be a more defensive one. In any case, Steigleder has been a star for the ‘Cats early on, and being able to do so at multiple position shows her exceptional talents.
Listen to the cats!
Our first two home men’s matches of the season await you this weekend!
Friday, 9/6 at 7:30pm CT: Men’s Soccer v Lehigh. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.
Sunday, 9/8 at 4pm CT: Men’s Soccer v Bowling Green. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.