Fall sports: Men's soccer

 

While we’re anxiously waiting for the football season to kick off, Northwestern’s other fall sports are already a week or two into their schedules. As we did in the spring, we here at SoP will get you the low-down on our non-revenue sports and keep you updated on their goings on throughout the fall.

We begin this week with a look at our men’s soccer team, which disappointingly dropped its season opener last week to Eastern Illinois, 2-1, in OT.

The program has emerged in a serious way under head coach Tim Lenahan, who took over the moribund team in 2001 after it had gone winless the previous season. Under his guidance, NU made its first NCAA tournament in 2004 and reached its highest ranking ever, No. 2, in 2008. The team made NCAAs for four years straight from 2006-2009. That’s quite a transformation from when I was at NU in the late ‘90s living in Bobb with a bunch of soccer players on my floor, who would smoke outside.

This season is the first time in five years that the Wildcats aren’t coming off an NCAA appearance. Though the ‘Cats have lost all-time leading NU scorer Matt Eliason to graduation, as well as five other starters, they return a solid core led by second-team All-Big Ten selection Oliver Kupe, featured in the video above. That core, along with a solid recruiting class, hopes to lead NU back to the postseason, though the always tough Big Ten will present a challenge.

Hit the jump for a deeper dive.

 

Most recent result: A 2-1 loss in OT against Eastern Illinois on Aug. 25. Not a good result, as the Panthers were 4-12-1 last year. The Wildcats will look to regroup Thursday against Cal, in a game to be played at Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire.

How does the sport work? The Big Ten has seven teams: IndianaMichiganMichigan State, Northwestern, Ohio StatePenn StateWisconsin.  Teams play each other once during the regular season. All teams qualify for the Big Ten tournament, with the regular season champion getting a bye in the first round. Winner of the tournament gets the conference’s automatic bid to the 48-team NCAA tournament, which has 22 automatic bids and 26 at-large spots. Soccer’s version of the Final Four is called the College Cup, which is in BirminghamAla., this year.

How did they do last year? The Wildcats finished 8-8-2 (2-3-1 Big Ten), failing to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. NU dealt with several injuries to key players throughout the season, and just like the football team's collapse towards the end of the season, the soccer team ended the game on a three-game skid, allowing 10 goals in that span.

What’s the historical context? By recent standards, last year was a disappointment, but the fact that a .500 season qualifies as a down year shows just how far the program has come under Lenahan. This is especially true given how competitive the Big Ten is in soccer.  The ACC is the premier men’s soccer conference, but the Big Ten is just a notch below.

What's the outlook for this season: The soccer cognoscenti aren’t expecting much from our Wildcats this year. The conference coaches predicted a sixth place finish (or second to last) for NU this year, and the Wildcats didn’t get any votes in the preseason NSCAA poll.

The lack of confidence isn’t a surprise, given that NU lost five starters from last year’s team, including all-time leading scorer Matt Eliason. Navigating the Big Ten will be tricky, too, as the conference has five teams ranked in the preseason top 25: No. 9 Michigan, No. 15 Ohio State, No. 17 Indiana, No. 18 Penn State and No. 19 Michigan State. Besides the conference slate, tough games loom on the schedule against No. 7 Cal and No. 12 Notre Dame.

But the Wildcats do return 73 percent of their goal scoring from last year, including second-team All-Big Ten forward Oliver Kupe, who accounted for 10 of the 30 goals the Wildcats scored all year. Kupe, a senior, is a talented athlete– he was recruited as a basketball walk-on by Michigan State and has reportedly considered playing basketball at NU, though as of now he has chosen to concentrate on soccer. He did have surgery in the offseason and missed spring practice to rehab a wonky hip, so the Wildcats are hoping he can stay healthy.

Sophomores Layth Masri and Lepe Seetane will anchor the midfield after being named to the Big Ten All-Freshmen Team last year. Joining them will be Chris Ritter, who missed all but two games last year as a sophomore due to injury, coming off an All-Freshman Team selection. Junior Jarrett Baughman, who also missed time last season with a concussion, will lead the defense, and Jonathan Harris and Tommy Tombridge will be competing for playing time as goalkeeper.

Lenahan also brings in a talented recruiting class led by goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who was invited to the US Under-18 National Team training camp, and midfielder/defender Nikko Boxall, who played this summer for the New Zealand Under-20 National Team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup.

Who are the coaches? Lenahan is in his 11th season at the helm at Northwestern. Prior to coming to NU, Lenahan earned his build-a-team-from-the-ground-up credentials at Lafayette College. There, he took a team that went 4-12 in the year before he arrived to two Patriot League regular season titles and two NCAA tournament appearances in his three seasons. Before that, he coached at his alma mater, Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, where he similarly inherited a 2-15 team and then led it to four appearances in the NCAA Division III tournament in eight years.

NU alum Rich Nassif, who played under Lenahan, is in his third season as an assistant coach, while UC Santa Barbara grad Neil Jones, a New Zealand native who recruited Boxall, is in his second year as an assistant. Volunteer assistant Ovidio Felcaro is the team’s main goalkeeper coach. He previously coached in the Argentine first division; not sure how he ended up at NU as a volunteer assistant, but goalkeeping has been an NU strength since he arrived in 2002.

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