I'm sure some of you have assumed that there was not a men's soccer season this year with my failure to write anything this fall, but they did participate in Division I athletics and despite being ravished with injuries that would make our football team blush, the Northwestern Men's Soccer team (10-7-3) will be dancing in the NCAA's for the 8th time in 10 seasons hosting Missouri Valley Conference champions Bradley University (13-5-2) at Lakeside Field in Evanston Thursday night. The winner will travel to #4 Cal-Berkley Sunday in second round action.
The season started out with much promise as Head Coach Tim Lenahan assembled arguably the most talented team in the history of the program, but only three minutes into the season senior captain Layth Masri went down with a season-ending groin injury which was only the beginning of the contagious injury bug. Even after Masri's injury, the team had enough depth in the midfield to withstand the blow racking up seven straight wins following a loss to UC Santa Barbara in the season opener to climb all the way up to #4 in the NSCAA College Soccer Poll (2nd highest in school history; #2, 2008).
The team seemed destined to grab its third straight Big Ten title beating Michigan in their opening Big Ten match at the tail end of the seven game winning streak. All the pieces were in place. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller was back for his third season after being the First Team All-Big Ten keeper as a freshman and sophomore. His classmate, two-time All-Big Ten centerback Nikko Boxall was back to anchor the defense with an incredibly deep and talented midfield of Masri, Connor Holloway, Lepe Seetane and the #1 ranked player in the conference and 10th in the country according to TopDrawerSoccer.com Chris Ritter, who turned down a professional contract from the Chicago Fire to return for his fifth season.
Moreover, 2012 unanimous Freshman of the Year, Joey Calistri was returning for his sophomore season coming off a 10-goal rookie campaign and highly touted freshman Brandon Medina was ready to follow in his footsteps.
Through the first 10 games Medina did not disappoint scoring three goals and establishing himself as one of the top facilitators in the the conference with 5 assists. Medina would suffer a torn ACL, ending his season in game 11, followed by Miller (who probably has the highest W.A.R. in the B1G) then getting mono to miss nearly all of the Big Ten regular season and Ritter and Boxall both missing multiple games in the heart of the conference season.
After their 7-1 start, the 'Cats had fallen all the way to 9-6-3 (1-4-1 B1G) finishing in last place in the Big Ten setting up a first round match up in the conference tournament with the 13th ranked Wisconsin Badgers (13-3-2) in a must win game to even get on the bubble of the NCAA tournament. Northwestern would gut out a 2-1 win and eventually fall to Michigan State in the B1G semis, but their RPI was strong enough to garner one of the final at-large bids.
The 'Cats now are relatively healthy heading into the Big Dance with the talent to make a deep run. The full NCAA bracket can be viewed here.
Game & Season Notes:
- Unofficial Gambling Line: Northwestern (-1/2 goal) vs. Bradley
- Matt Eliason 2.0? Calistri has 12 goals this season matching Eliason's 12 in his sophomore season. Calistri has 22 career goals, 11 behind Eliason's all-time record of 33. Calistri will most likely do a bicycle kick at "Messi and Friends" 2017.
- Miller Shut-outs: Miller's 27 shut-outs is second all-time behind Misha Rosenthal (2005-2009).
- 2013 All-B1G Players: Ritter, Calistri (1st Team), Boxall (2nd), Medina (All-Freshman)
- Sportsman of the Year: Seetane (NU B1G sportsmanship representative)