Despite Lauren Clem’s heroic performance in the final game of her illustrious career, Northwestern fell 1-0 in overtime to UCLA late last night to end their season. The second-seeded Bruins (17-2-2), undoubtedly the toughest team Northwestern (12-8-3) has faced this year, outshot the Wildcats 28-2. But Northwestern scratched and clawed its way through 90 scoreless minutes, forcing an overtime period. Clem made 12 saves, but UCLA finally broke through in overtime to end the Wildcats’ season.
Just three minutes into overtime, Ashley Sanchez threaded a beautiful through ball to Anika Rodriguez, who found herself with an open look in the penalty box and buried her fourth shot on goal of the match. Lauren Clem had no chance. UCLA had possessed the ball deep in the Wildcats’ end for much of the contest, but just couldn’t seem to break through a sturdy Northwestern defense and its goalkeeper until the bitter end. Rodriguez, reunited with Sanchez on UCLA this season two years after they were teammates on the U-17 US Women’s National Team, finally managed to find the connection she had been looking for.
In the end, Northwestern’s defense ran out of answers. The Wildcats went to a 5-4-1 for the first time this season for this all-important matchup, and they needed each of those 5 defenders in a frantic first half. In the opening frame alone, the Bruins had ten corners, many of which ended with the ball bouncing dangerously in the penalty box. But Northwestern survived scoreless to the second half thanks, in large part, to timely and frantic defending.
It seemed that the Wildcats’ near-complete lack of a counter-attack would cost them in the second half. However, pockets of intense UCLA pressure aside, the final 45 minutes of regulation were relatively even, though Northwestern still wasn’t able to break through for any major chances. Nia Harris and Brenna Lovera tried to punch holes in the defense of the Bruins and had a couple of near-misses. without any real support they weren’t truly able to get anything done.
The sensational efforts of Northwestern’s backline, especially Clem, should not be tainted by the final scoreline. UCLA came into the game 8th in the nation in scoring, averaging a healthy 2.4 goals per game. The Wildcats largely held down the most high-powered offense they’ve seen this season. Michael Moynihan’s squad has plenty to be proud of and has a solid foundation to build upon in 2018.
But unfortunately, this is Clem’s final hurrah. The senior, who will go out as not only the best goalkeeper in Northwestern history but as one of the greatest net minders in the history of college soccer, will finish her career in sole possession of third place in career shutouts with 48. Her Herculean performance last night may have ultimately for naught, but she carried Northwestern to three straight tournament appearances (and at least one win all three years), a share of last year’s Big Ten Title, and this year’s Big Ten Championship game over hands-down the best three-year stretch in program history.
In a year that started slowly and seemed fated for disappointment coming off of the first Big Ten Championship in team history, the Wildcats finished strong down the stretch. After a 6-6-2 start left them on the verge of being eliminated entirely from NCAA Tournament consideration, they closed the regular season on a four-game winning streak before reaching the Big Ten Championship for only the second time in program history. Lauren Clem and the defense peaked over that seven-game stretch, putting together 535 scoreless minutes. They were even better at home, closing the home slate with an astounding 734 consecutive shutout minutes.
Clem will be missed dearly, along with key starting right back Kassidy Gorman, who led the team in goals last year, contributing forward Maria Fayeulle, midfielders Grace Orndorff, Kim Jerantowski, and Mackenzie Howe (after missing the whole season with an injury, defender Nikia Smith will probably take advantage of a potential fifth year of eligibility). However, all is not lost for the Wildcats. Northwestern will be returning 8 starters, over 80 percent of their field minutes, and 22 of the 24 goals scored by this year’s squad in 2018. Lovera, the team’s leading goal-scorer in 2017, Marisa Viggiano, the first-team all Big Ten midfielder who led the team in assists with 8, and twin towers Hannah Davison and Kayla Sharples, who cemented the defense at center back while combining for 5 goals and 5 assists on the offensive end, will spearhead a veteran team that should be a threat in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats may not have been able to pull off the big upset, but another NCAA Tournament appearance, coupled with a win in penalties over Butler in the First Round (thanks to more phenomenal play by Lauren Clem, who I am running out of superlatives for), have put the finishing touches on another successful season. The last three years have taken the program to new heights, but even as Northwestern looks forward to life without Clem, the future has never been brighter.