Pitchside with Parker: The biggest game in the last five years

By Parker Johnson

And then there was one.

It has been a while since I last wrote about the men’s soccer team, but in that time period the ‘Cats have managed to wrap up Big Ten play with a .500 record and the 4-seed in the Big Ten tournament. They will host a first-round game against Maryland this Sunday at Martin Stadium, with serious implications for the NCAA Tournament selection on the line. Earlier this week, I spent a whole column acquiescing on the turbulent women’s season, and now this one will be all-in on the men’s team. Let’s get to it.

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!

KICKOFF: How Did We Get Here?

You may remember the last time I was talking about this team. They were 7th in the Big Ten halfway through conference play and I gave them a C as a midterm grade for their performance to that point. Well, it’s safe to say they got some extra credit and nailed the exam because now we are talking about a team that finished top-4 in the Big Ten and is hosting last year’s national champs in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

Northwestern finished the season on a four-game unbeaten run, three of which came in Big Ten games. I said in my grades column that the games against Rutgers and Wisconsin would have the potential to shift the perception of Northwestern’s season, and they ended up doing so for the better. Northwestern got four points from those two games, a 2-0 home win over Rutgers and a 0-0 draw in Madison. The Wildcats also got a big 1-0 win over a solid Michigan State team sandwiched between those two games. While the draw against the Badgers was frustrating (0 shots on target against one of the worst teams in the Big Ten), the three-game conference streak, which included three shutouts, put NU in a great position at the end of the year.

The back line seems to have regained some of its swagger, and it’s coming at the perfect time. First year Logan Weaver has made the left back position his own next to Garrett Opperman, the rock of the Northwestern back line. The right side of the back four, meanwhile, has seen plenty of changes throughout the season. Julian Zighelboim and Andrew McLeod have been involved at times, but in the three-game shutout streak (excluding the de facto exhibition against Marian on Senior Night), Lenahan has stuck with versatile senior Matias Tomasino at center back flanked by Jayson Cyrus on the right. The combo appears to be working, although it has yet to face an offense with serious firepower. If that back four plus Miha Miskovic in goal continues to be solid for Northwestern, it significantly improves NU’s chances of going far in the Big Ten tournament. The foundation for Lenahan’s gameplan is a trustworthy back line; from there, any offensive contribution is just a bonus.

The impressive defensive performances combined with a bit of help were enough to nick the Wildcats a home game. The win over Michigan State knocked the Spartans down in the standings. Then, Penn State continued its outstanding campaign with its first win over Maryland since 2005, which dropped the Terrapins into a tie with Northwestern for fourth in the final standings. Of course, Northwestern’s monumental 3-1 win in College Park back in September gave the Wildcats the head-to-head tiebreaker, so they will host Maryland Sunday in the 4-5 matchup.

HALFTIME:

As author of a column dedicated to equal coverage of Northwestern men’s and women’s soccer teams, I came across a piece of news this week that felt particularly salient and very encouraging:

The headline is slightly misleading. Women’s players will still make less than men both in salary and in revenue kickback from World Cup performances, but the percentage share is equal, which is a huge step in the right direction. The collective bargaining agreement offers long-overdue improvements in travel, training and maternity leave policies for the Matildas. Another notable difference is that World Cup revenue will be scaled based on performance; the men and women will both get 40% of generated revenue, but it jumps to 50% if a team makes the knockout stages, which the women have a much stronger history of doing.

With the United States Soccer Federation in the midst of a hotly-contested legal battle over the same issue, I hope that the precedent set in Australia can help sway the ruling in favor of a similar deal for the World Cup-champion United States Women’s National Team. This topic deserves a column of its own, but for now, I’ll just pass along this piece of news.

Looking at Maryland (and Beyond):

With the rematch against the Terps looming, the question is not “Can Northwestern win?” Of course it can. It beat Maryland 3-1 at Ludwig Field previously, so a home matchup should theoretically be even more favorable for the ‘Cats. The question, rather, is “What has changed since September 20th?”

Plenty has changed for both teams. Just looking at the personnel, when you compare the lineups from the first tilt to each team’s latest game, you find two changes from Northwestern and four for Maryland. Northwestern looks the same besides the aforementioned defensive changes, while Maryland has switched its goalkeeper, one center back and two attackers.

Recent form is another point of variance. Both teams came into the first matchup with similarly mediocre out of conference records before Northwestern got its signature win. Coming into Sunday, however, Northwestern is unbeaten in four without allowing a goal. Maryland, on the other hand, lost at Penn State and then home to Michigan, gaining zero points from the last six and allowing seven goals in the process.

Even if Northwestern has been slightly more consistent on the whole and better of late, Maryland has shown quality in big games. The Terps have taken on eight top-50 teams in the RPI, resulting in a 4-4 record and a +1 goal difference in those games. NU has played six such games, finishing 3-3 with a -2 GD. Maryland’s experience and success in big games this season should aid Sasho Cirovski’s side in the win-or-go-home atmosphere. That’s not to mention that the Terrapin senior class has played in 13 elimination games compared to the Wildcat seniors, who have played just five. Oh yeah, and the Terps are defending national champions.

Despite the standings and the result of the first tie, I foresee NU as the underdog on Sunday and it will probably play as such. Expect Lenahan to sit back and absorb Maryland’s pressure and seek to counterattack all afternoon. September’s result is replicable for Northwestern, but it will take an near-perfect performance.

Before we go, let’s look bigger picture at the ‘Cats for a moment. After finishing the regular season above .500 for the first time in five years, Lenahan’s team has an outside chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in that same period.

Right now, Northwestern is definitely on the outside looking in. But a decisive second win against Maryland might just give the ‘Cats a shout. I don’t know everything about the NCAA selection process — it’s gate-kept pretty well by the committee — but what I do know is that RPI and prestige of programs is considered heavily. If the ‘Cats beat Maryland on Sunday, that gives them two wins over a team with the elite prestige, which will stand out to the committee. It would also be NU’s fourth win against RPI top 50, which would help make up for playing a relatively weak non-conference schedule.

I think it would take a second win in the tournament — which would likely come against 1-seed Indiana — to say that Northwestern would have a better than 50 percent chance to make the Big Dance. But you can only take things one game at a time, and to have any chance at extra postseason, the ‘Cats have to get past Maryland.

This is the most pivotal game for Northwestern men’s soccer in the past five years. It’s a chance to get out of a half-decade rut in front of a home crowd against the defending national champions. You couldn’t ask for a more thrilling opportunity.

It all comes down to Sunday.

You can listen live on WNUR Sports from 12:45 pm CT on Mixlr at www.mixlr.com/wnur-sports or on the Mixlr app.

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