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Northwestern men’s soccer season preview

The Wildcats didn’t have much success last season, but bring back many of the 2018 group’s contributors.

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Coach Tim Lenahan and Northwestern men’s soccer struggled through a difficult season last year, finishing 6-9-3 (0-5-3 in Big Ten play) thanks to a group of contributors that included just two senior starters. But now, with the vast majority of the team’s significant contributors returning, the Wildcats are ready to make some noise in 2019.

Among the five graduated seniors from 2018’s squad, only Camden Buescher, John Moderwell, and Jake Roberge participated in more than half of the team’s games.

But in Buescher, Northwestern loses its highest scorer. The midfielder pumped in seven goals last season, scoring in a variety of ways, but mostly with his strong right leg. Roberge served as both a fullback and a forward, with his versatility stabilizing the Wildcats and leading him to tally a goal and an assist. Moderwell saw significant time as well, mostly at the back, though he managed two assists on the year.

Though the Wildcats are bringing just about everybody else back, one exception seems to be Tommy Katsiyannis. The skinny, talented sophomore midfielder participated in every game last season as a creative, if inconsistent, offensive force, finishing the year with a goal and three assists on a team-leading 21 shots. But he is not listed on the roster this season, and appears to have left the program.

Despite the seeming loss of not one but two key midfielders, the Wildcats have a glut of experience all over the field. The defense, led by junior goalkeeper Miha Miskovic, ought to be a bright spot. The Serbian put up an impressive .760 save percentage last season, thoroughly impressing while finishing each of the 19 games he started.

The center back pairing of Garrett Opperman and Andrew McLeod will look to return to success of their own. McLeod, who has battled injuries throughout his career, impressed in his 11 games of action, and will look to put together a full season in his senior year. Opperman, meanwhile, is a force offensively even as he puts in hard work on the defensive side, tallying two goals and two assists, mostly off of set pieces, in 2018.

At fullback, the true sophomore pairing of Julian Zighelboim and Bardia Kimiavi return. Both had their moments last season, with Zighelboim establishing himself as a defensive-minded starter while Kimiavi used his elite pace and impressive skill to score two goals despite mostly coming off the bench.

Despite the loss of both Buescher and Katsiyannis, the Wildcat midfield retains plenty of creative forces. Mattias Tomasino, perhaps the brightest force on the team in terms of pure skill, will look to step up in his final season alongside fellow senior Sean Lynch, one of the more consistent players on the team.

Meanwhile, true sophomore Richie Bennett, one of three Wildcats given preseason All-Big Ten honors, will help stabilize the defense for a second consecutive season as Northwestern’s primary holding midfielder. The trio combined for two goals and four assists in 2018.

The experience doesn’t stop in the middle, however. Another pair of seniors, Ty Seager and Mac Mazzola, will lead the way up front, with each having joined Bennett in being honored by the conference. Seager, a local with a never-ending motor, stood out last season, tallying two goals and four assists. Real Madrid Academy product Jose Del Valle will join them up front after scoring two goals and earning three assists despite playing only 12 games due to injury in his true freshman season.

Northwestern’s decorated trio of forwards helps give them more talent and experience than they have had in a while up front, though it remains to be seen whether the notoriously defensive-minded Lenahan will open up the offense for them. Last year, especially in Big Ten play, the Wildcats were often content to play for low-scoring draws, earning three of them in the process and finishing eighth out of nine teams. This year, they have been picked seventh by the coaches.

The nine-man first year class, including two forwards, three midfielder, and three defenders, will attempt to add to a veteran-heavy squad. The group is one of the most international that Lenahan has recruited in recent years, featuring natives of five different countries and four continents.

The Wildcats have already played two exhibitions, falling 2-0 to Green Bay at home before drawing 1-1 at Evansville. Their regular season begins this weekend, when they take on UCLA and Pittsburgh in neutral-site matchups at Indiana University on Friday and Sunday respectively.