By Parker Johnson
A lot has happened since I gave my midterm grades for Northwestern soccer. The women’s season is now officially over, and I am here to reflect on the agonizing but encouraging ride that many have called a “rebuild.” I’m going to do this season wrap-up as its own piece and then write a separate Pitchside on the men’s team in the next couple days before the Big Ten tournament starts — spoiler alert: we have a home game!
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!
Northwestern women’s soccer finished its season without a postseason game for the first time since 2013. Let that sink in.
I came to Northwestern in 2016, when NU allowed seven goals all season and made the Sweet Sixteen. That year being my infancy as a Northwestern women’s soccer supporter, I was raised to believe this team would always be successful. I was there in 2017 when the ‘Cats nearly won the infamous Big Ten tournament (and let the record show — Penn State got away with one) and then pushed eventual finalist UCLA to overtime in the Big Dance. My naive belief that Northwestern couldn’t fail was entrenched even further last year, when NU missed the Big Ten tournament but still inexplicably earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. It seemed like they were too big to fail.
Then nine seniors left.
In stepped a dynamic crew of first-year players, and despite uncertainty coming into the season, Michael Moynihan scrapped together a team with the requisite talent to finish top-eight and make the Big Ten Tournament, if not more.
When I graded the ‘Cats in my last column, they were sitting pretty, needing just two wins from their six-game run in to secure a top-eight spot in the Big Ten. They proceeded to go 1-4-1 in those six games. The backbreaker was the brutal 1-0 home loss to Minnesota, which came via a goal that was given by goal line video review. It was the Gophers’ only win away from home all year.
Entering the final day, Northwestern still had a shot at the Big Ten Tournament. The Wildcats needed either a result against unbeaten Wisconsin or help from some other teams and they would taste the postseason for the sixth straight year. They got neither. It was 1-1 with 0:45 left in the first half when the Badgers scored a goal which, for the second time in two games, was given after goal line video review. Wisconsin went on to win 3-1.
Purdue threw a wrench into things by beating Indiana and forcing a three-way tie with itself, Northwestern and Nebraska for the 8-seed in the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern and Purdue both beat Nebraska, which eliminated the Cornhuskers. It went all the way to the fourth tiebreaker, goal difference, to decide the final spot: Purdue was -4, while Northwestern was -7. Don’t even get me started on why goal difference is the FOURTH tiebreaker, but in any case, NU was mathematically eliminated, and that was that.
Look, I fully realize how shortsighted it was to expect this team to make the postseason. Of the top 10 players in minutes played, six were in their first season (five first-years plus sophomore Olivia Stone) with the team. Newcomer Rowan Lapi also started every game before a season-ending injury in early September. But despite the inexperience, the team was this close to another postseason berth, so it was a disappointing end to the campaign.
Two goals given by video review. Losses to two of the five teams that finished below them in the Big Ten. A 0-0 draw at home against the team that beat them out for the 8th spot. Untimely injuries to Lapi, Danika Austin, and Kayleigh Stahlschmidt. Indiana bottling it against Purdue on the final day.
These were the margins that kept Northwestern women’s soccer out of the postseason for the first time since 2013. If any of the many misfortunes had gone the Wildcats’ way, the season would still be alive. But when the calendar flips to November, misfortunes become excuses. Northwestern finished 5-10-2. Simply put, the team didn’t do enough to earn postseason play.
With hindsight, we can conveniently point to this as a rebuilding year. It was an opportunity for Moynihan to give first years valuable minutes, continue to develop the strong junior and sophomore classes and experiment with players in new positions and formations. Northwestern was picked to finish 9th in the Big Ten, and that’s exactly what happened.
Still, to chalk 2019 up as a lost season would be a great disservice to what this team showed on the pitch. To my eyes, the Wildcats’ possession and buildup play was better with this group than any of the past four NCAA tournament teams. They put in inspiring, competitive performances against elite teams like Kansas, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. 12 different players scored goals.
Moynihan is building a Midwestern powerhouse. This was the season meant to bridge the 2014-2018 era with the era of 2020 and beyond. Behind us are the days of Lauren Clem, Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison suffocating opponents into submission from the back. Ahead lay expansive highways to attacking soccer, led by Julietta Thron and Regan Steigleder as they nurture the growth of Paige Miller, Aurea Martin and the rest of the high-flying class of 2023.
Just because there were good signs for the future, that didn’t stop the results of the final two weeks from stinging a bit. “Rebuilding year” or not, this team had a chance to go farther than it did, and it fell frustratingly short. A lot of programs in Northwestern’s position would have seen the Wildcats’ 2019 campaign as a success, but this is Northwestern women’s soccer. As the past few years have taught me, the bar is set higher than that.