The Northwestern men's soccer team (13-5-4) has advanced to the program's fourth ever Sweet 16 with a 1-0 win over no. 7 Marquette (16-4-1) in Milwaukee on Sunday. This is the Wildcat's first Sweet 16 appearance since 2009 when the current seniors were freshman. They will now travel next Sunday to no. 10 Louisville (13-5-1), who dismantled an over-matched Winthrop squad 5-0 in their second round match-up in the Bluegrass state.
The final score may have only showed a 1-0 victory for the Wildcats and 9-8 advantage in overall shots in favor of the Golden Eagles, but don't let the box score confuse you as Northwestern dictated the tempo of this game from the opening whistle. As mentioned coming into the match, Marquette had only been to one NCAA tournament (1997) compared to a Northwestern program entering its seventh trip to the Big Dance highlighted by the aforementioned Sweet 16 in 2009 and two deep runs to the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2008, respectively. It showed early on as the Wildcats came out calm and composed generating most of the quality chances in the first 45 minute stanza while a larger in size Marquette team (accentuated by 6'7" behemoth centerback Axel Sjoberg), but less technically skilled and savvy side was flustered by the pressure and failed to register a shot on goal.
The Wildcats efforts paid off 31 minutes into the game when a Joey Calistri first-time bomb from about 25 yards out put the ‘Cats on the board and his team-leading ninth goal of the season ended up being all they would need to move on. The shot came off of a free kick from the left side that was served in on the ground by junior defender Scott Lakin and miscleared by a Marquette defender right to a waiting Calistri just outside of the top of the box ready to strike. Lakin got credit for the assist on the play, but really the Marquette defender is to thank essentially teeing up Calistri for the one time strike. The service played in was also probably Lakin's worst ball of the match as is it was an awfully under hit, counter-attack ball waiting to happen, but Northwestern capitalized on the mistake by Marquette and held on with solid defending the rest of the way.
Lakin will be applauded for his gift of an assist in the papers, but he should in reality be commended for his sound defense instead, shutting down the right side offense of Marquette and wreaking havoc getting forward on the left flank. The center of the field is where Northwestern truly showed their strength, though. In the back, Nikko Boxall thwarted everything that came his way and his centerback partner Jarrett Baughman recovered from a few rough touches early on to be his normal, composed self and lead the team. Both Boxall and Baughman were named to the TopDrawerSoccer.com National Team of the Week. Chris Ritter was as usual the main catalyst in the midfield and was spot on and crisp with his touch and passes all evening. He along with Boxall also marked Sjoberg, who has an astounding eight goals as a defender, on all set pieces holding the Golden Eagles' top aerial target shot-less. Fellow central midfielder, junior Layth Masri, doesn't get the credit he deserves, but was also instrumental in getting the Wildcats the win doing all the little things that go unnoticed winning tackles and connecting passes as he has done all season.
Overall, it was a huge win on the road against a top ten Marquette team, but a high-powered Louisville team that averages nearly two goals per game and boast 6 players with four or more goals will present a greater challenge. Louisville, unlike Marquette, has been through the trenches of the NCAA tournament before and have been where Northwestern wants to go. The Cardinals reached the elusive Final Four in 2010 and even though many of the key players from that run that came devastatingly close to a national championship are gone, there are still holdovers that have been there and tasted the success and know what it takes to get to the big stage. Still, when you make it to this point you expect to play a top-caliber team and in general, Louisville is not a bad draw this year as they are not a juggernaut like that 2010 team and have a nearly identical record as the unseeded Wildcats.
A win over the Cardinals would likely send the ‘Cats to perennial national title contender no. 2 Maryland for an Elite Eight battle November 30th in College Park to determine who will be the Big Fourteen's Under Armour team in the future and more importantly a potential first-ever Final Four for Northwestern.
No. 16 Indiana is the only other Big Ten team remaining in the tournament as both Michigan and Big Ten tourney champ Michigan State fell in second round action. The full bracket can be seen here.