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Men’s soccer: Postseason chances getting slimmer

Playoffs? We’re talking about playoffs? Playoffs?

Twitter @NUMensSoccer

Another week, another article where I’ve spent far too much time analyzing amateur American soccer, but here we are. The ‘Cats played two more matches in the past seven days, here’s what you need to know:

Northwestern 1 (1.20 xG), Milwaukee 1 (0.99 xG)

Wednesday, Oct. 19, (Evanston, Ill.)

This was not how the beautiful game was intended to be played.

A weeknight kickoff with the temperature just above the freezing point made this a memorable match for all the wrong reasons.

Northwestern faced two battles on this frigid October night: the elements and the Milwaukee Panthers (1-7-5). However, in its quest to snatch a win in its final non-conference game of the year while avoiding frostbite, the ‘Cats would be without Justin Weiss, Vicente Castro and Ibraheim Obeid, as all three have yet to return from their respective injuries.

Those of you who have regularly been following these updates will know what NU’s tactical M.O. is, and against a slower, less technically astute side, it was able to control the match. The Panthers attempted to build up in a 2-3, but after being put under immense pressure at the start of the game, they abandoned playing out from the back. At the other end, the ‘Cats were able to play around and through the Milwaukee 4-1 press, and so they dominated the run of play.

However, despite having under 40% possession of the ball, Milwaukee found the breakthrough in the 31st minute after a rare spell of possession in Northwestern’s half. NU’s back line got caught out by an early cross and afforded the Panther left winger an unmissable chance, which he fired past freshman Paul Walters in goal.

The ‘Cats weren’t fazed, and continued to play their game. Eventually, they got some good fortune in the 58th minute, with the Milwaukee goalkeeper spilling an ambitious effort from Ethan Dudley right into the path of Joseph Arena, who deposited his first goal of the season.

In general, Northwestern was the better team, but individual errors and a lack of cutting edge in the final third made this a much more even game than it really should’ve been.

While Payne didn’t make any noticeable adjustments strategically, there were a couple of interesting personnel decisions. Obeid being out for the foreseeable future is a big blow to the depth at both fullback positions, and winger Alex Gordon was called upon to give Brandon Clagette rest at right back.

Elsewhere, the ‘Cats used a Dudley-Andrew Stevens center back pairing for the final few minutes of the match, and Danh Tran got some playing time in Jason Gajadhar’s position. In short, this is a thin squad, and there will be players showing up in positions you wouldn’t expect them to out of necessity.

Not to leave things off on a gloomy note, there was one positive, and somewhat ironic, development this match.

I wrote about the ‘Cats having a massive tendency to play to their right in the previous update, so they responded by having a game where they looked far better going to the left. Per Wyscout, 21 of their 46 attacks against the Panthers went down the left flank, a tally that equaled their total forays down that side over the prior three matches.

There were two reasons for this. Milwaukee sat so deep that their wingers almost formed a back six, so Northwestern had both fullbacks overlapping, with the attacking shape looking like a 2-2-6 in certain moments. This, coupled with the Panther DM tightly man-marking Gajadhar, who was occupying the right half-space, made attacking the left side much more viable, as the ‘Cats had a numeric advantage over there. Long may it continue.

Northwestern 0 (1.24 xG), Wisconsin 1 (1.06 xG)

Sunday, Oct. 23, (Evanston, Ill.)

Despite the fixture looking very similar to the previous one, as NU was hosting another team from Wisconsin — this time, the 4-6-3 Badgers — at Martin Stadium, the circumstances could not have been more different.

Instead of a non-conference clash scheduled to give some of the reserve players on the Northwestern roster minutes later in the year, this was an practically a have-to-have-it for both teams, as the last spots in the conference tournament were up for grabs.

Additionally, the weather did a complete 180, as the temperature reached the 70s and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. Perfect for a match, and even better for Senior Day.

Twelve Wildcats were honored during the pregame festivities, with one, Bardia Kimiavi, accompanied by Miha Miskovic, a name that will be familiar to those of you who have been following this team the past few years.

Perhaps emboldened by the conditions, postseason implications, the fact this would be some of their teammates last time playing at home or all of the above, the ‘Cats came out like a fire had been lit underneath them, dominating play in the early stages of the match. Naturally, Wisconsin found the opening goal out of nowhere in the 15th minute after a giveaway by Jason Cyrus just outside of his own box.

While Northwestern spent most of the match on the front foot, it struggled to carve out any clear cut chances, and the Badgers’ lone goal proved to be decisive.

Tactically, it was much of the same from Payne. Wisconsin pressed NU’s 2-3-5 with a 4-1-3-2, and was able to disrupt most of the attacking momentum the ‘Cats generated with their size and strength in defense and midfield.

After the match, Payne said he wanted his team to go out and attack down the right, where he had Clagette overlapping from fullback and Jayvin van Deventer moving inside. After the goal, he had Kimiavi and van Deventer swap wings, which, in terms of spacing, was a interesting decision.

Unlike van Deventer, Kimiavi prefers to stay much wider, which meant he’d be trying to occupy similar areas as Clagette, and that isn’t optimal. Often, this would result in the winger receiving the ball and the fullback trying to make an overlapping run, but with no options centrally, the Badgers weren’t strained very much defensively.

Wisconsin used a 2-3-5 when it had the ball, while the ‘Cats defended in a 4-2-3-1. NU was pretty resilient when the Badgers were trying to create from settled possession, but problems, like what led to the solitary goal, arose when it won the ball back. Wisco was very good with its counter-press, and that made it difficult for Northwestern to get to its strength of attacking in transition.

There was one other moment from this match that should be noted, as senior Logan Weaver made his first appearance of the season following a five-month recovery from an ankle injury. On a day of multiple individual achievements, the Winnetka product subbed in at left back and also donned the captain’s armband.

Northwestern’s Big Ten Tournament Qualification Situation:

Payne and Co. currently sit at the bottom of the conference table with two points. With eight of the nine teams qualifying for the tournament, NU has one last game, at Michigan State (6-7-2) on Sunday, to get itself out of the cellar.

Michigan sits just ahead of the ‘Cats in eighth, with four points, and Wisconsin is now out of reach in seventh with seven points. Since the Wolverines prevailed 3-1 in Evanston, they hold the tiebreaker over NU. So, for Northwestern to reach the postseason, it must win and Michigan must lose to Penn State in its final game on Sunday.

If this unlikely scenario manages to occur, Northwestern would face the regular season conference champion on the road in the first round of the tournament, which at this point would be a trip to Payne’s alma mater, Maryland. Ohio State and Indiana are both still in the running to claim the top spot, however, so there are a number of permutations to keep track of heading into the final day of the season.