With three consecutive NCAA Tournament second round appearances and a run to last season’s Big Ten Championship game under their belts, the women’s soccer program had high expectations entering this season. Through two games, they’ve certainly looked the part. The first Northwestern team to officially kick off their season this fall (at least with non-exhibition games) did so in style, taking down a relatively lackluster Miami of Ohio squad on Friday before dominating the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest in Sunday’s match.
The season opener, against the Redhawks, served mainly as a tuneup. Despite the tight 2-1 final score, the Wildcats dominated possession and the chances. Miami of Ohio, who won just two games in the MAC last year, converted on their only shot against goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood. Meanwhile, Northwestern attempted 13 shots, and also had eight corners to Miami’s none.
The Wildcats struck first, as senior defender Nikia Smith, returning from an injury that cost her all of last season, found sophomore Regan Steigleder for the first goal of the season. After the Redhawks responded late in the first, defender Simmrin Dhaliwal found senior center back Kayla Sharples for the eventual game winner amid a flurry of Northwestern near-misses. Late 90 minute lightning delay aside, the rest of the game ended uneventfully.
Seemingly, the Wildcats would find a more serious test awaiting them on Sunday. The Demon Deacons, ranked 28th in this year’s preseason Coaches Poll (Northwestern was tied for 35th), return plenty of talent from last year’s squad, which joined the Wildcats in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. But Northwestern led from start to finish, culminating in an impressive 2-0 win.
Nia Harris got things going in the sixth minute. The speedy sophomore found a through ball from senior forward Brenna Lovera and slotted it home, giving the Wildcats an early advantage. Northwestern had their chances in the rest of the first half, but it was Wood, starting once again, who stood tall in goal, with two big saves (she finished with three for the game) to keep Wake Forest off the board. The aggressive true freshman was perhaps the biggest question for the Wildcats to start the season. Four year starter, perennial All-Big 10 member, and probable GOAT Northwestern goalkeeper Lauren Clem, after all, left a significant void. But Wood certainly showed up against the Demon Deacons.
In the second half, Lovera opened her own tally in the 61st minute. Last year’s leading scorer got on the end of a Madi Kennel cross, staking the Wildcats to a lead they would not surrender. Stellar defending by senior center back duo Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison, along with the aforementioned Smith and highly-touted first year Julietta Thron, throttled Wake Forest the rest of the way. Sharpies later joined Wood, Steigleder, and Marisa Viggiano on the all-tournament team.
Interestingly, the Wildcats scored each of their four goals from the run of play. Last year’s Northwestern, decidedly defense-first, scored nearly half of their 24 goals from set pieces, most originating with the foot of Viggiano. The talented midfielder, along with Sharples, Lovera, and Davison, formed last year’s main set-piece crew. Each has returned, and they combined to threaten on corners in both games. If Northwestern can continue to keep their offense multi-faceted as the schedule progresses, a consistent dynamic attack may prove challenging for even the toughest opponents to come.
The Wildcats will get a chance to test out that attack again this weekend, as they continue in the state of Indiana for the Boilermaker Challenge Cup and a pair of Big 12 opponents. Iowa State will come first, on Friday, before the real test on Sunday: 9th-ranked West Virginia.