Northwestern men’s soccer 2021 Season preview

By Nicholas Guiang

There are no easy games for this year’s Northwestern men’s soccer team. With COVID-19 pushing back the season until mid-winter, Friday, Feb. 19, marks the opener of this unusual season. After graduating seven seniors and finishing an impressive fifth place in the Big Ten in 2019, Head Coach Tim Lenahan also faces the task of filling the roles of players like Matt Moderwell, who lead the team in both assists and goals in 2019. And with every game being played within conference, Northwestern won’t have time to tune-up against weaker foes.

“There’s no easy games. Any win is a good win in DI soccer. And with a game every four days, this season will be about grinding it out,” Lenahan said.

Luckily, with the delay of the 2020 season until the winter of 2021, the Wildcats had time to grow into themselves during the fall. Both first-years and graduate transfers had time to find their fits within the squad. Players like first-year Rom Brown, who spent the past two years serving in the Israeli military, have stepped up and shown leadership despite being fresh legs in a veteran squad.

“He’s the oldest guy on the team. And when you serve three years in the Israeli military, you’re gonna have a different mindset that most 23 year olds. He really raised the level of this team mentally,” Lenahan said about Brown.

He also pointed out the connection forged last fall between Brown and junior Richie Bennet who could form a deadly midfield duo for the ‘Cats despite having never played together before.

“Their strength, tactics, and composure in the midfield will be our strength,” Lenahan said. “They [Brown and Bennet] will be among the best pairings in the Big Ten.”

Among the three graduate transfers Lenahan recruited, Ethan Bandre, a goalie from the University of the Pacific, has stepped up as a vocal leader among the team. Lenahan even went as far as saying that Bandre was pushing Northwestern’s premier shot stopper, junior Miha Miskovic, to another level.

With the new roster also brings a new style of play to Lenahan’s tactics. When much of the 2019 season relied on the speed and physicality of Moderwell on the left wing, it’s hard to see where many of the goals will come from this year. 

But, Lenahan insisted saying that “fan’s will see more soccer played this year.”

Vicente Castro and Ugo Achara Jr., both sophomores, fall among those that Lenahan expects to lead the fluidity and creativity of this Wildcat offense. Both saw considerable game time as first-years and while Achara and Castro only tallied a combined three goals last season, they showed bright spots with Achara’s wonder goal vs. Indiana, and Castro’s magic with the ball at his feet. 

“Achara is our most dangerous player,” Lenahan said. “Whether that equates to goals, that’s on Achara, but he’s certainly going to put other teams under pressure.”

But with the season a day away, the team has many holes it needs to fill. With the absence of Jose Del Valle, who is back home in Spain currently due to the pandemic, that leaves a spot for Nate Hall, a graduate transfer from Clemson, to find his spot in the squad next to Achara up top. However, that’s not the only place the Wildcats have struggled in as of recently. Both senior defender Garrett Opperman and junior midfielder Bardia Kimiavi have not been in form according to Lenahan. Kimiavi, one of the quickest players whenever he is on the pitch, struggled to find his stride last season, but Lenahan is assured that they will find a way to utilize the creativity and speed of Kimiavi out wide. 

As for Opperman, Lenahan said his fitness has struggled during the pandemic.

“Covid affects everyone differently,” Lenahan said. “For me, I lost 20 pounds, but for others, it has sapped their energy and motivation. Right now, it’s just about getting him back in form because when he is, he’s one of the best in league.”

With a leader and defensive star like Opperman struggling at the moment, the ever strong Wildcat defense that Opperman has helped run the past three years may be dwindling. But even with those struggles, Lenahan found some bright spots with praise of sophomore Logan Weaver.

“He’s our utility guy,” Lenahan said. “He can play almost anywhere and succeed. He’ll be the one to help us fill the holes.”

Weaver had a fantastic first season in 2019 with one goal scored and countless goal-saving plays on the defensive end as much of his year was spent at fullback.

But through the ups and downs of the pandemic, perhaps the biggest story of this season for the Wildcats is the departure of Lenahan at season’s end, capping a 20-season tenure in Evanston.

“It’s bitter sweet. I’m just so proud of what we have accomplished here at Northwestern. Not a lot of programs have accomplished what was accomplished here,” Lenahan said. “We get about 60% of the funding that other Big Ten soccer teams receive, so we made miracles happen, and I’m really proud that.”

Today marks the first of many lasts for Coach Lenahan as the Wildcats open against the Michigan Wolverines inside Ryan Fieldhouse. And after a campaign that landed Michigan in third and second, respectively, in the regular season and Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern will face a tough test as many of its players are just finding their legs.