Head Coach: Russell Payne
2020 Record: 2-8-1
Goals for: 11
Goals against: 23
Whether you refer to this sport as football or soccer, there’s no dispute over the reality that Northwestern struggled at the sport in the “2020” season, that was in fact played during the spring of 2021. It was the worst season since former Head Coach Tim Lenahan’s first with the program in 2001, during which the team went winless. Lenahan — who holds the distinction as the winningest coach in program history — announced his retirement last spring, which opened the doors for newly hired head coach Russell Payne. Payne has decades of playing experience at all levels of the game and he comes to the Northwestern program after spending 11 seasons with Army West Point. This Wildcat team has loads of young talent and veteran players that will help lead the charge in 2021, but unfortunately they will have to take the pitch without their leading goal scorer from this past season in Ugo Achara, who transferred to Louisville over the summer. The departure of Achara is a large hurdle to mount as NU eyes a bounce back campaign in the fall of 2021.
Struggles in 2020
There are many reasons that the ‘Cats were unsuccessful in the 2020 season, ranging from the normal ills of the pandemic, to inconsistent defensive play and overall the simple talent disparities between them and opposing teams. However, the biggest factor hindering Coach Lenahan’s team was their lack of offensive production. In the 11 games that the Wildcats played, the team scored a total of 11 goals. Even more concerning is that five of those goals came in a February game versus Wisconsin, meaning that if you exclude that lone victory, the team scored a mere six goals in 10 games. That dearth of scoring could stem from a lack of offensive creativity, poor spacing or slow pace of play. At some points during the season, such as their first game against Michigan, the ‘Cats displayed unique combinations that led to epic goals, but other than those few moments, the offense was relatively flat all year. Thus, a drought-laden offense supplemented by a subpar defense was less than ideal.
The team had a goal differential of -12 to end the season, and the back four for Northwestern often appeared to lack chemistry, as there were many communication errors throughout that led to avoidable goals. The poor structure of the defense also resulted in the majority of games being played on the NU side of the field, making it difficult to formulate meaningful possessions. And yet, though the ‘Cats were not the most successful team this past spring, there is plenty to look forward to in the fall.
Reasons for Optimism in 2021
Reason number one is also the most obvious, as the purple and white will now be led onto the pitch by Coach Payne. Yes, the head coaching change is also a reason for pessimism in 2021, but it is a double-edged sword of sorts that has the potential to completely change the culture and outcomes of the program. Payne is a seasoned veteran that has been around the game for decades. He will offer a new perspective that will hopefully help the ‘Cats develop intricate and multidimensional game play. Coach Payne has playing experience as the goalkeeper for the United States Men’s National team goalkeeper, thus his expertise could prove to be beneficial to an NU backline that could be described best as problematic this past season.
Also inspiring optimism is the return of some key contributors from the spring season. Goalkeeper Miha Miskovic from Serbia is back, and even though Northwestern surrendered 23 goals last season, the majority of those were not due to poor goalkeeping. In fact, Miskovic’s acrobatic and anticipatory gameplay often bailed out his defenders with extraordinary saves. Miskovic should also be able to learn much from Coach Payne due his previously mentioned experience as a big-time goalkeeper.
The last reason for optimism in this 2021 season is that there is nowhere to go but up. The ‘Cats were tied for last in the Big ten with a .227 win percentage. The returning players can use the spring season as a learning experience. The fast opposition play and lack of a fluid offense that led to their demise will hopefully prepare Northwestern to take control of the game this fall.
Players to Watch
GK Miha Miskovic
Miskovic is a maestro in the goal. It’s almost as if he can teleport from one post to the other as soon as the angle of attack is changed, in turn putting the pressure on opposing players to be more meticulous in their shot placement. What is most impressive about Miskovic’s game is his ability to make himself as large as possible when in compromising situations. He is an expert at shrinking the goal which makes him an attacker’s worst nightmare.
M Vicente Castro
Castro is one of the players that should constantly be on the opposing team’s radar. His ability to stretch the field and move quickly in transition is impressive. The Santiago, Chile native is capable of performing nearly every skill in the book, making him difficult to guard in open spaces. In 2021, Castro could very well end up leading the team in scoring or possibly assists, as he frequently sets up his teammates with golden opportunities at the goal.