While their season didn’t get off to an ideal start against Chicago State, the ‘Cats were able to get a pair of positive results over the past week against other Chicago foes, including the team’s first win under head coach Russell Payne.
On August 30, NU traveled to Flames Field to face UIC, who had already started their season with a loss at the hands of No. 22 Grand Canyon. Payne elected to employ a similar tactical approach as to what they had done against Chicago State, featuring an extremely high defensive line, pressing from the front 4 of a 4-2-3-1, and direct and quick attacking play. For the first thirty minutes, the Flames controlled most of the possession, but NU’s aggression on the counter meant the game had a nice ebb and flow, with both sides creating chances, but neither team being able to break the deadlock.
The 30-minute mark proved to be a big turning point in the trajectory of the game. After sophomore forward Justin Weiss attempted a bicycle kick and collided with a UIC defender in the air, things started to boil over between the two sides, and sophomore Joseph Arena was shown a red card for his role in a scuffle. Even though it was an extremely harsh decision from the referee, there was nothing the ‘Cats could do about it, and they had to play the rest of the match a man down. Payne responded to the red card by switching to a 4-4-1 formation for the rest of the first half, which then became a 5-3-1 after the break, and NU spent the majority of the game defending in their own half.
From the red card onward, the game lost a lot of its spark, and UIC controlled proceedings, trying to open up the ‘Cats resilient defense, but they never really were imaginative enough to find the decisive goal. NU held strong for the remaining 60 minutes of normal time, and the subsequent 20 minutes of overtime, earning a 0-0 draw despite being outshot 24-5 and giving up 12 corners while having none of their own.
In their second game of the week, and still in pursuit of their first win of the season, Northwestern squared off against Loyola, who had tallied wins in both of their games to start the year. The tactical approach from the ‘Cats was much different, as they decided to play a 4-4-2, emphasizing defensive stability and shape, and not as much of the “heavy-metal” soccer that they were looking to replicate against Chicago State and UIC. Part of the decision-making behind the schematic switch may have been due to Loyola’s 3-5-2 system, as going with 2 strikers on 3 centerbacks leaves an extra man in defense to, in theory, keep the team more compact and less likely to concede a goal.
While NU didn’t have a lot of possession throughout this game, they showed plenty of offensive potency, exploiting the space behind Loyola’s wingbacks, especially down the Ramblers’ left flank, and also utilized their set piece opportunities to create some decent chances. After firing off a couple of shots on target from that side, the ‘Cats finally found the opening goal in the game nearly midway through the second half. The ball fell to the feet of senior winger Bardia Kimiavi outside the 18-yard box, who then beat his defender to the byline and chipped a cross to an unmarked Eric Smits in the box, who nodded the ball into the back of the net in the 70th minute. Smits had just been subbed on a minute earlier, and the goal was his first touch of the match.
The ‘Cats were able to see the 1-0 lead out, and picked up not just their first win of the season, but also the first victory of (hopefully) many more during Payne’s tenure. The tactical flexibility and resilience of this team are two traits that Northwestern fans everywhere should be optimistic about, and those traits will be extremely vital once conference play starts in a couple of weeks.
Northwestern’s season rolls on with three games in the upcoming week, with Kansas City and Utah Valley coming to Evanston, and a trip to Cincinnati to face Xavier rounding out the trio of matches.