By Nick Guiang
Right now, the Northwestern Men’s Soccer team is riding the high of a four game winning streak, the 300th win in head coach Tim Lenahan’s career, and a massive victory over a 25th-ranked Maryland squad. I imagine Coach Lenahan is applauding their efforts against a magical UIC squad that seemed inches away from stealing a victory away from home despite playing with 10 men for 80+ minutes. However, the Wildcats should be doing the opposite. While their current streak is impressive and something they should use as a launching pad for greater success, the reality for the Wildcats is that their performances have been lackluster up to this point in the season. Despite an astonishing and well-deserved victory away from home where they seemed to subdue a Terrapin squad that is perennially among the most dynamic in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have largely failed to create a potent and dangerous offense.
This season, the Wildcats have only created 77 shots of which only 39 have been on target. Yes, they have slotted in 10 goals past their opponents, but even against a 10-man UIC squad, they only recorded four shots on target. What has kept them in games has been stellar defense headed up by Junior CB Garrett Opperman and Junior GK Miha Miskovic. But as the Wildcats move deeper into a very demanding Big Ten schedule, they must begin to change their tactics to become less reliant on that stingy back line.
The Wildcats are currently very comfortable barely slipping by teams through tough defense and a single counter-attacking goal. However, the Indianas, Michigan States, and Penn States will not be so gracious in gifting them a goal as Maryland did late in the game to allow the Wildcats to seal their victory. If Northwestern wants to take the next step as a major Big Ten program, they must transition from the staunch defense-first mentality that has gotten them this far.
This can only begin if Lenahan embraces it. In the game against UIC, the Wildcats were man-handled by a depleted and 10-man squad. Despite the advantage, Lenahan and the Wildcats declined to change game plans and stuck with their gritty defensive strategy while failing to create any golden opportunities. It wasn’t until the final 10 minutes of the game where Tim Lenahan thought about grabbing a victory for the WIldcats, and even then they were chasing a one goal deficit after a spectacular bit of play by UIC and their midfielder Jesus Perez.
With 10 minutes left, Lenahan transitioned his team to an attacking and offensively dominant formation by adding a 4th striker. While the unconventional 3-3-4 is not an ideal full-game formation, the intention and purpose is promising. The problem is that it took 80 minutes to figure out a change needed to be had. UIC had run circles around Northwestern until the Wildcats decided to take control of the game and attack with a purpose in the final minutes.
As head coach, Lenahan must recognize opportunities to allow his team to freely flow as an offensive threat. As of now, the offense often looks cemented and stagnant within their formation unable to weave in out of their classic 4-3-3. It’s not as if they don’t have the personnel to open up a game and play exciting attacking soccer as UIC did. With creative and efficient wing players like Bardia Kimiavi and Matt Moderwell, the offense has the ability to combine and get behind defenses as well as take on players with the intent of scoring. Both players have shown versatility in their positioning on the field as both midfielders and wingers. Both are technically sound, they have consistently swung crosses in from either side and created key shots by beating players out wide. And, both are always look to connect the midfield and the forwards by combing with their center forwards. However, Coach Lenahan seems keen on holding them back and cementing them wingers that get behind defenses and knock crosses in.
Everyone knows that the Wildcats can defend, and it is what they are best at, but if they want to once again become a constant participant in the NCAA College Cup, they must begin to allow their creativity and expression to show on the pitch. Tim Lenahan must create a game plan that focuses on the transition from defense to offense using the speed and creativity of their wingers. With the weakest of their Big Ten opponents up next, the Northwestern Wildcats can use the Ohio State game to prove that they can take the next step and show the country they can play both defense AND offense for 90 minutes.
You can listen to the ‘Cats against Ohio State on Friday on WNUR Sports! Kick-off is at WNUR Sports. Jake Liker and Nick Guiang have the call on Mixlr.