Pitchside is back, baby. This week, I’m going with the academic theme since we have reached the October crossroads of the halfway point in Big Ten play and also Northwestern midterm season. I have two midterms next week, and the ‘Cats soccer teams are facing some evaluations of their own in the form of pivotal Big Ten contests. This week, I’ll play the teacher and dish out some midterm grades.
Keep in mind that these are completely subjective. And further, this is a great place to include a valuable life lesson: Grades aren’t everything! If you need evidence, I’m sitting here writing this instead of doing my homework, and I’m having a grand old time.
As always, if you have questions/comments/thoughts on anything related to Northwestern soccer, leave them in the comments or find me on Twitter @parkerkjohnson and I will respond in the next column!
Midterm evaluation: men’s soccer
Record: 5-6-1 overall, 1-2-1 Big Ten
Northwestern is currently tied for 7th out of 9 Big Ten teams. It has been a tough team to evaluate because some early-season performances showed a lot of growth, but the recent three-game slide has seen a lot of discouraging but familiar signs reappear from the Wildcats.
It was so tempting to take the Maryland game as an indicator that this team had turned a corner. The Wildcats went to College Park and knocked off the defending national champions, resulting in the program’s first win over a top-25 team since 2016. It wasn’t just a smash-and-grab result as one might expect from a Tim Lenahan team; the ‘Cats went toe-to-toe with the Terps in the thoroughly deserved 3-1 win.
Things haven’t been so great since, though. NU beat 10-man UIC in overtime — a game I broke down thoroughly in my last column — and then followed it up with just one point in the next four games, a 0-0 draw at home to Ohio State. Northwestern only scored one goal in those four games, which is a particularly concerning stat that harkens back to last year, when NU only scored four goals in the eight game Big Ten season.
To be fair, that lone goal in the last four was a banger. First-year forward Achara Jr has been electrifying in limited minutes this year, and this goal had Northwestern up on No. 5 Indiana before the Hoosiers came back to win 3-1. As former WNUR Sports Director Amit Mallik would say, this was a #Upper90Shot.
So, where do we stand halfway through Big Ten play? Well, you have to be encouraged by the fact that Northwestern has already won more Big Ten games than last season, has equaled the amount of conference goals scored, and is just one win off of last year’s overall total of six.
You could argue that the Wildcats have three good wins: Pitt, Maryland and UIC. I think you can take UIC off that list, because I’m pretty sure even Lenahan would admit that, based on the first 10 minutes, the Flames would have won that game if they had avoided the 12th-minute red card. For now, the Maryland game is starting to look more like the exception than the rule for this team.
The next two conference games for Northwestern are against the two teams below the ‘Cats in the standings, Rutgers and Wisconsin. Northwestern has played better against top teams in recent years than fellow Big Ten bottom dwellers, so two comfortable wins in these games would mean a great deal to this program. The difference between two wins or two losses here has the potential to shift the perception of the entire 2019 season.
Midterm grade: C
Teacher Comments: Student does well on big tests, but often struggles to complete routine classwork. All assignments are supposed to be submitted online, but student refuses to change their mind that “hard copies are better.”
Serge Gnabry of Bayern Munich and the German national team has been on an unbelievable run of form recently. In Bayern’s 7-2 dismantling of Tottenham last week in the Champion’s League, he popped off for four goals and one assist. Then he started the international break with this beauty of a goal against Argentina in a 2014 World Cup final rematch:
It’s difficult using words to try to describe how sublime this goal is. Gnabry has three defenders and the goalkeeper between him and the goal when the ball gets to him. All four players do their jobs — I can’t stress this enough — perfectly. And Gnabry still scores, applying the finishing touch at such an angle and with such coolness that he looks more like he is lounging in a recliner than playing in a professional match.
A+ for Serge. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Midterm evaluation: women’s soccer
Record: 4-6-2 overall, 2-2-1 Big Ten
The women’s team has been up and down as well, but the main cause of the subpar record has been lack of one simple thing: consistency. Now, it probably wouldn’t surprise anybody to hear that a team that lost nine seniors the year before lacked consistency. Beyond just the amount of new players, though, factors like injuries and constantly changing tactics have kept this team in limbo all season as it treads through a combative schedule that could crush a team without much backbone.
It feels like a team that deserves more than just four wins at this stage. Coach Michael Moynihan’s tactics have been more expansive than in previous years, and the players — especially the first years — have brought more creativity to a team that tended to 1-0 its way into the NCAA tournament the past four seasons.
Non-conference play was rough. Northwestern went 2-4-1, but dropped points against several teams it could have beaten, including a brutal 1-1 draw with Central Michigan, a flat 2-0 loss at Harvard and a 1-0 loss to SMU in which Northwestern missed a penalty kick.
Big Ten play has been better, but still a little inconsistent. The ‘Cats have been outplayed in four of five conference games, but still managed to pick up a pair of resilient road wins against Nebraska and Iowa and a draw at home against Purdue. The most curious result was the first conference game against Illinois, when NU went to Champaign and played very well against the Illini but came away with a 3-1 loss against a team now dead last in the Big Ten standings — in fact, that was their only Big Ten win so far this year.
All in all, considering that four of the women’s first five conference games were on the road, two ins and a draw is quite a good output. Now, Moynihan and the ‘Cats can regroup with four of the final six at home, including a pair of very winnable games against Michigan State and Minnesota. If they can handle those two and steal one of the other four games, that would put the ‘Cats at five conference wins. Five would represent one more than last year, when they clinched a surprise at-large bid to the Big Dance.
The only thing I can say with confidence halfway through the season is that I have no idea how these last six games will go. If Northwestern loses all six or wins all six, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. It’s all left to play for. For a young, injury-riddled team that was supposed to be in a “rebuilding year” according to many in the Big Ten media, that’s a pretty great spot to be in.
Midterm grade: B-
Teacher comments: Student shows desire to learn and express themselves in new ways. Student often does well for most of a tests, but answers just enough questions wrong to drop a letter grade below where they should be. A pleasure to have in class.
Listen to the ‘Cats!
A pair of women’s matches at home this weekend as the ‘Cats look to sweep the state of Michigan starting in just a couple hours!
Friday, 10/11 at 7pm CT: Women’s Soccer v Michigan St. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.
Sunday, 10/13 at 1pm CT: Women’s Soccer v Michigan. Live on mixlr.com/wnur-sports or the Mixlr app.