It has been 467 days since Northwestern men’s soccer last took the field, but it finally has its chance to compete in the Big Ten once again. Played in the winter, this season will look very different than prior years, as at least the first two home games will be played at Ryan Fieldhouse until the Wildcats will make their return to Lanny and Sharon Martin Stadium.
Nonetheless, head coach Tom Lenahan and his team will look to use this shortened, conference-only schedule to build off of a successful 2019 and claim NU’s first winning season since 2014. The Wildcats are projected to finish sixth out of nine teams in the Big Ten according to the preseason coaches poll.
Regardless of any preseason poll results, Northwestern should be ready to come out of the gates strong after a prolonged offseason in a 10-game Big Ten sprint.
After a disappointing 2018 season that saw Northwestern go winless in conference play, Tom Lenahan’s squad bounced back to finish a respectable fifth place in the Big Ten with an 8-8-2 overall record and 3-3-2 record in conference in 2019. It finished its season winning four of its last five before losing to defending conference champions Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. NU scored a marquee 3-1 win early in the season against the No. 25 Terrapins.
The team’s bread and butter all year was its defense, as a strong back line buoyed by defender duo Garrett Opperman and Julian Zighelboim along with goalkeeper Miha Miskovic helped the ‘Cats give up just one goal in its last six contests. However, as has been the case for the past few seasons, the offense failed to show up against stronger competition; NU scored in just two of its eight losses in 2019.
Northwestern graduated seven seniors a season ago. The most notable losses up front are Matt Moderwell, who led the team with 16 points last season and was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team, as well as forward Ty Seager, the team’s third-leading scorer. Midfielder Mattias Tomasino, who started all 18 games also graduated. Moderwell will likely be the most difficult to replace.
Defensively, the biggest loss for the ‘Cats is center back Andrew McLeod, who was a staple of Northwestern’s back line during his career in Evanston. McLeod started in ten games in 2019 and played 1021 minutes but lost playing time to underclassmen as the season went on.
Despite a few key losses, Northwestern returns most of its starters and some of its best talents, particularly on defense. Expect these players to make an impact this season:
Junior midfielder Bardia Kimiavi is poised for a breakout season. In 2019, he scored the second most goals on the team with four and added two assists to boot despite playing only 841 minutes and starting in 11 games. Despite standing in at 5-foot-7, Kimiavi brings elite speed and impressive ball skills that make him a constant threat to opposing defenses.
Kimiavi’s flashes of excellence from the 2019 season was enough for him to make the Big Ten’s Preseason Players to Watch list, and his success during his third year in Evanston could be the key to unlocking the offense this year.
The senior defensive back may not stuff the stat sheet every game or have the flashiest plays, but Opperman will play an integral role in the success of Northwestern’s defense this year. The Minneapolis native was just one of two players on the team to start in all 18 games in 2019, and he was also one of two to play more than 1500 minutes last year. His success on the back end of the field earned him Second Team All-Big honors last season.
Opperman brings size and stability to an often-neglected position in soccer, and alongside junior back Julian Zighelboim, will serve as the captain of what should be another Northwestern strong defense.
Ugo Achara Jr.
Achara Jr. started just two games for the Wildcats in 2019, but the Nigeria native shined as a scorer in his limited playing time. Although he could be careless with the ball at times as a freshman, the forward clearly holds massive potential to be an offensive force, as evidenced by this ridiculous goal he netted home against top-10 Indiana last year.
Going into the modified 2021 season, Achara has also been named a Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch alongside Kimiavi. It will be interesting to see whether or not Lenahan gives Achara a spot in the starting 11, or if the sophomore will begin the season as a spark plug off the bench yet again.
The Wildcats welcome in six new players this year: three first-years and three graduate transfers. The new group of recruits hail from around the world: Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Kansas, Illinois and Israel.
One name to keep in mind heading into the season is midfielder Rom Brown. Brown comes from a unique background, as he joins the team after two years of service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Despite his time away from the game, Brown was named a Big Ten Preseason Player to Watch.
He’s also received praise from Lenahan, who called Brown “a high possession player with great defensive instincts and strong leadership qualities” and expects him to make “an immediate impact.” After the graduation of a few starters in the middle of the field, there’s certainly a possibility that the 22-year-old competes for minutes from the get go.
Another incoming player to keep an eye on is graduate transfer goalkeeper Ethan Bandre. Bandre completed his undergrad at the University of Pacific with two years of playing under his belt as well as postseason experience. It remains to be seen whether or not Bandre was brought in simply as a backup for Miskovic after the departure of Robbie White, but regardless of who starts in goal, anything can change as the season progresses.
2021 Season Outlook
There should be optimism around Northwestern heading into this season. Behind a strong core of proven starters along with an exciting group of underclassmen, the Wildcats could make a serious push toward the top half of the Big Ten this season.
The biggest concern right now is whether or not NU will score enough goals to turn close losses into draws and draws into wins. If it can find its goal scorers, though, it will have a real shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
NU has a tough draw, with both Indiana and Maryland, the respective first and second teams in the Big Ten’s preseason standings, on the schedule twice. However, an upset here or there could propel the ‘Cats to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2014.
Northwestern will host its season opener against Michigan on Friday evening. The Wildcats lost to the Wolverines 3-0 on the road in 2019.