Season Recap: Women’s Soccer

By John Volk

Season Statistics

Regular Season Record: 5-6-0 (9th place)

Postseason Finish: Second round

Most Goals: Regan Steigleder (4)

Most Assists: Josie Aulicino and Marianna Annest (3)

Most Minutes: Hallie Pearson (1198)

Season Overview

In the 2020 season, year two of the rebuild, Northwestern did what it needed to: improve.

2019 was an expected step back for the Wildcats. Having lost 10 seniors, including six starters, three of which went on to the NWSL, Michael Moynihan’s squad finished 5-10-3 and missed the postseason for the first time in six years.

2020 wasn’t a bounce back, but instead a step forward. The ‘Cats closed the regular season one game under .500 at 5-6 and took the defending champion Wisconsin Badgers to PKs in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. No, it wasn’t a world-beating season, the likes of which Northwestern fans have become accustomed to during Moynihan’s tenure — but it was never supposed to be.

Perhaps most notable was the play of the defense which allowed 12 goals over 13 games (0.92 goals per game), a major step up from the 27 goals allowed over 18 games in 2019 (1.5 goals per game). The injection of graduate transfer center back Hallie Pearson played an important role in that improvement, but the growth of Julietta Thron and Danika Austin and the debut of Ella Hase indicate long term answers for the back line.

The biggest question coming into the season, though, was where the goals would come from. Northwestern managed just 14 goals (0.83 per game) in 2019, with no player scoring more than two on the season. While the defense drastically upped its game, the offense inched forward with 14 goals (1.08 per game) led by senior midfielder Regan Steigleder’s four goals.

While Steigleder is set to return for a fifth season, questions about the offense will likely persist into the rapidly approaching 2021 season. Northwestern lost every game last season when its opponent scored at least one goal. As the ‘Cats look toward finishes near the top of the table, they’ll need to find a way win when their, albeit strong, defense can’t keep a clean sheet.

Josie Aulicino, who started every game as a first-year in 2020, showed the potential to become a top striker in the Big Ten. This year, she scored just one goal, a rocket from well outside the box against Penn State, but she flashed plenty of speed and vision with three assists, tied for the team lead.

The ‘Cats got better in 2020. A mid-table season mostly tucked inside Ryan Fieldhouse in February and March didn’t attract the eyes this team has in the past, but don’t be surprised to see Northwestern back on top in the near future.

MVP: Regan Steigleder

The team’s leading scorer, Steigleder played a pivotal role in Northwestern’s success this year. Carrying lofty expectations, she delivered from the jump, setting up the dramatic game winner on an 86th minute free kick in the opener versus Indiana. A crucial part of the transition from the central midfield, Steigleder found herself the centerpiece of the Northwestern attack, without whom the offense would’ve stalled. To the relief of Northwestern fans everywhere, Steigleder has taken advantage of the blanket extra year of eligibility provided by the NCAA this past year to return for the 2021 season.

Key Contributors: Hallie Pearson and Julietta Thron

The center back tandem was one of the Big Ten’s strongest in 2020 and the major piece to Northwestern’s strongest asset: the back line. Thron dazzled as one of the few bright spots in 2019, anchoring a young defense as a sophomore. While the defense as a whole struggled at times that season, Thron was rarely the problem. She notably locked up Dani Rhodes, one of the nation’s best strikers, in the season finale loss to Wisconsin.

Pairing her with Pearson made it unfair. Pearson led the team in minutes and picked up a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week Award in 2020, having arrived as a graduate transfer from Arizona. Thron missed the first two games of the season, but upon her return, the Pearson-Thron pair never allowed more than two goals in a game while contributing to five clean sheets.

First-Year Stars: Josie Aulicino and Ella Hase

It’s too hard to just pick one.

Aulicino is the future of the Northwestern offense. She has the speed, the leg and the vision to become the number one threat on this attack. Even when she wasn’t finding the net herself, she had a knack to involve herself in the middle of every scoring play in 2020.

Hase, meanwhile, projects to be a key cog of Northwestern’s future on defense. The latest in a line of forward-turned-fullbacks, Hase can be the perfect mirror to Austin at left back. She has the tools to push the pace on the outside, an important quality for that position on this team as Moynihan loves to create offense from the fullback spot.

Aulicino and Hase have plenty of flash to help usher in an exciting new era of Northwestern soccer.