Pitchside with Parker: On Milestones and Midfielders

Ahh, welcome back Wildcat fans. It’s the first week of classes for us students, and as things gear up in the classroom, they follow suit on the field with both our soccer teams entering conference play. It’s been a divergent start for the men and the women; the latter starting conference 0-1 in the midst of a three-game losing streak, while the former is coming off of a pair of historic wins and riding a four-game win streak. I’m back and excited to break it all down.

As I’ve said before, 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! I would love to see some interaction and hear what you think, even if (or perhaps especially if?) you disagree with everything I say.

Kickoff: 299 > 300

Soccer is one of the least quantifiable sports in the world. Goal and assist tallies can only explain so much of a player’s impact, and even if you’re into metrics like xG and StatsBomb charts, stats are consistently deceiving.

But that’s exactly why certain milestones elicit a unified reaction from fans and followers alike. A mark like 300 career wins adds a level of prestige that everyone can contextualize in the same way. I congratulate NU men’s soccer coach Tim Lenahan for that achievement, which he earned through a 2-1 overtime victory over UIC Tuesday night, but I also want to assert why it wasn’t really that important.

As a soccer purist, I identify more with the first paragraph of this section than the second. I believe in nothing more strongly than that which I view with my own eyes, and I am often more interested in the way a team I follow performs than how much it wins. That line of thinking is part of why I don’t write this column every week — if I haven’t watched or broadcasted the games, I don’t think it’s fair to give my thoughts.

Anyway, back to the point: Lenahan’s 300th win didn’t do much for me. It came against a fiery UIC team that is supremely talented, but too often shoots itself in the foot. The Flames dominated Northwestern for the opening 10 minutes, but handicapped their chances when Christian Crespo accidentally Spartan-kicked Vicente Castro and got sent off in the 12th minute of the game. Despite playing a man up for the rest of the game, the ‘Cats allowed UIC to continue bossing the possession, and it resulted in a wonderful goal in the 60th minute to put Northwestern in a 1-0 hole. With Lenahan forced to … *gasp* … send players forward and chase the game, NU equalized and forced overtime before scoring the golden goal through a great link up between Matt Moderwell and Jose Del Valle.

In the end, Lenahan got his 300th win, but why he waited until the final 10 minutes of regulation to start playing like he had an extra player, I may never understand. It was very frustrating to watch.

It was a good result for the ‘Cats, but it came on the heels of a much more impressive one. Just four days before, Northwestern took down defending national champion Maryland on the road to pick up its first Big Ten win of the season. Northwestern struck early through Bardia Kimiavi and then showed great resolve after Maryland equalized to push on and grab two more second half goals for the 3-1 victory — Northwestern’s first over a ranked opponent since October 2016. It was significant for many reasons, but what stuck out most to me was that Northwestern was not afraid of Maryland. The ‘Cats have played well against top teams the past few years, and now they finally have a win to show for it. The next step is to show that same urgency against teams who are more beatable.

Ultimately, all I think I’ll remember about 300 was how UIC somehow managed to dominate a game of NCAA soccer while playing 10 v 11.

But 299 was special. It filled me with pride for this team. Don’t let statistics drive the storyline.

Halftime:

Enough rambling, let’s watch this piece of absolute filth by Everton:

You can see in Everton’s eyes the condescending look, as if he’s saying to the defender, you’re really going to leave your legs that open? A grave mistake.

Also, +1 for tackling the same guy right before. Next-level disrespect from the Brazilian.

Talking Tactics: Revisiting the Steigleder Experiment

Last time, I wrote about Regan Steigleder’s move from midfield to outside back. I encourage you to read it if you want more detailed analysis, but basically, the idea from women’s soccer coach Michael Moynihan was twofold: by moving his best midfielder to left back, it would help the struggling defense while encouraging the offense to create strong attacks by starting from the back.

The shift worked beautifully against Central Michigan (when Moynihan first tried it), William & Mary and Cincinnati. Steigleder was able to control the tempo of the game from left back and made a handful of very impressive defensive plays as well. She continued to look like one of the best players on the pitch in those three games despite playing out of position.

Things haven’t gone so sweetly since. NU has lost three straight to Harvard, Kansas and Illinois, and the lack of Steigleder in the midfield has been glaring. Kansas was a bit of an exception because it’s just a very good team, and NU actually played one of its most complete games of the year despite the 1-0 defeat. But in all three losses, the midfield just looked a bit uninspired and overmatched. When I first wrote about Steigleder, I predicted that against better teams, Moynihan would move her back to midfield. The reason she was so effective against CMU and W&M was that Northwestern had more of the ball and those teams didn’t press the ‘Cats. Steigleder could still control the game like a midfielder because she had so much time and space.

Harvard and Illinois beat Northwestern because they won the midfield battle. With holding midfielder Rowan Lapi injured, the ‘Cats have lined up with various combinations of Chloe McGee, Kylie Fisher, Madi Kennel and Lily Gilbertson in the center of the park, and they have not been able to control a game yet. This has hurt Northwestern in a couple ways. One is that opposing teams have better possession, which allows Steigleder less chances to get on the ball as she spends more time defending. Furthermore, it has created a bit of a gap between the defenders and forwards. NU has launched more long balls than Moynihan would like, and I believe the lack of build up stems from the midfield suffering from a deficit of chemistry and creativity — things that Steigleder could provide.

Moynihan seemed to notice the issues I’ve illustrated in the game against Illinois. After going down 1-0, he moved Steigleder up to midfield and put Kaylee Titus at right back. Northwestern looked better after the switch, outshooting Illinois 7-3 in the second half, but Illinois fought on for the 3-1 win (Steigleder incidentally got the only Northwestern goal via a PK). The fact that Moynihan seems to trust Marianna Annest at left back and Titus at right back might make it easier to transition Steigleder back into midfield.

Northwestern is 2-5-1 through eight games, but Steigleder has only started three of them in midfield. As Big Ten play ramps up, my plea is this: play the best player at her best position. This team has a lot of talent and I would love to see her get a chance to combine with the dynamic young attackers like Olivia Stone, Paige Miller and Aurea Martin.

Listen to the ‘Cats!

Our next two WNUR Sports broadcasts will be for the surging men’s team.

Friday, 9/27 at 7pm CT: Men’s Soccer v Ohio St. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports-ii or the Mixlr app.

Tuesday, 10/1 at 7pm CT: Men’s Soccer v Indiana. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.

Comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s