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Men’s soccer: Dramatic regular season finale sends ‘Cats into conference tournament

The endings of Russell Payne’s first two seasons are eerily similar.

Twitter @NUMensSoccer

Despite suffering a seemingly fate-sealing loss against Wisconsin on Senior Day, Northwestern, with some help from Penn State, was able to do the improbable and get itself into the Big Ten tournament.

Since the ‘Cats didn’t do anything interesting tactically and Michigan State (6-7-2) didn’t do anything new, I’m going to retell what ended up being a glorious two hours before doing a more X’s and O’s breakdown of NU’s first matchup in the tournament.

Michigan State 1 (1.01 xG), Northwestern 2 (1.94 xG)

Sunday, Oct. 30, (East Lansing, Mich.)

To ensure no one has an unfair advantage over anyone else by knowing what result they need, eight of the nine Big Ten teams kicked off their final match of the regular season at the same time. Rutgers was the ninth team, but with how scheduling works with an odd number of squads, it finished their conference campaign the prior week.

Just to refresh your memory, coming into the day, Northwestern was at the bottom of the table with two points, while Michigan was in eighth with four. Additionally, the Wolverines held the tiebreaker over the ‘Cats because they won when the two sides squared off in September. Since the last-placed team is left out of the tournament, in order to qualify, NU would have to win at Michigan State and Penn State would have to best Michigan in Ann Arbor.

With that vital context out of the way, here’s a timeline of what can only be described as a remarkable sequence of events through my eyes.

Pre-game (~11:55 a.m. CT): After realizing the game was going to be played at noon instead of 3 p.m., I began my prep to keep track of everything pertinent to the immediate future of this team. Utilizing the power of TweetDeck, I had the Twitter feeds of Michigan and Penn State automatically refreshing for any score updates in that match, and did the same for the women’s team in their quarterfinal showdown with Rutgers.

The below image shows what this looked like in practice.

Additionally, I went through NU’s starting lineup, which was fairly standard outside of one notable change: Logan Weaver making his first start of the year at left back.

1’ (12:03 p.m.): Both matches kicked off. I’ll also include a “goals needed” tracker in parentheses at the end of each event, which is just the number of goals Penn State and Northwestern need to score to get the desired results. (2)

10’ (12:12 p.m.): The screenshot above became significant for an unfortunate reason. At that specific moment in the game, the Spartans had just gotten a corner kick, which they ended up scoring from. (3)

12’ (12:14 p.m.): Things got even more difficult for Russell Payne’s team, as the Wolverines found the opening goal in the other match. (4)

14’ (12:16 p.m.): In what proved to not be the only time a Northwestern player found himself in an unlikely position, Weaver made an incisive, Theo Hernandez-esque run through the heart of the MSU defense. He was able to put a shot on target, which the Sparty goalkeeper kept out, but the same couldn’t be said for first-year Jayvin van Deventer’s follow-up effort. (3).

Halftime (12:50 p.m.): The scores held until the break, with the ‘Cats tied 1-1 on the road and Penn State still trying to erase an early 1-0 deficit. (3)

50’ (1:14 p.m.): The Nittany Lions equalized, the first piece of support Northwestern received from its feline friends. (2)

57’ (1:21 p.m.): Good news and bad news for NU at the same time. Penn State found the back of the net again, taking its first lead of the day, but Weaver appeared to reaggravate the injury he had been recovering from. Nothing official on his status yet, but he was subbed off and did not return, with Jason Cyrus taking his place on the left side of the defense. (1)

60’ (1:24 p.m.): The ‘Cats having their destiny in their own hands didn’t last for long, as Michigan put itself back in pole position to take the last spot in the Big Ten Tournament with an equalizer. (2)

80’ (1:45 p.m.): Just when Northwestern’s postseason chances couldn’t look any less likely, they got not just one, but two lifelines. The first was the Nittany Lions scoring their third goal of the day, retaking the lead in Ann Arbor. The second was, well, possibly the most improbable chain of events of the day, and that’s saying something.

After the two sides skirmished for a successive run of second balls, Alex Gordon found himself on the ball with just one defender in green and white between him and the goal and Ethan Dudley bombing forward from center back to his left. Gordon played Dudley in, who then ended up on the floor in the box. Whether his fall was caused by a Michigan State player is an entirely different discussion, but the referee must have thought there was enough contact there to award a penalty, because he did.

With Justin Weiss and Vicente Castro both still injured, it ended up being el capitano, Dudley, who stepped up to take the most important kick of the season. He sent the Spartan goalie the wrong way and fired an emphatic penalty into the bottom right corner with his left foot to give the ‘Cats a crucial goal. (0)

Full time (1:59 p.m.): Northwestern was able to hold on, doing all it could do, and now waited on the conclusion of the other conference match taking place in the state.

The Wolverines threw bodies forward as they were just minutes away from the end of their season. With literal seconds left, they had a golden opportunity to score, but could not take advantage. The clock hit triple zero and one Nittany Lion started waving goodbye to some of the inconsolable Michigan players, while the Penn State bench got into a bit of altercation with what looked like a Michigan assistant coach.

Somehow, this wasn’t the biggest postgame incident of the weekend in Ann Arbor, and somehow, the ‘Cats had found their way into the postseason.

No. 8 Northwestern at No. 1 Maryland: Preview

NU’s reward for reaching the tournament? A trip to College Park to face Maryland, Payne’s alma mater and the regular season conference champion, at 6 p.m. CT this Friday, Nov. 4 on B1G+.

The two teams drew 1-1 when they met less than a month ago in Evanston, but the bigger storyline might be what happened when they faced each other in the quarterfinals of this tournament a year ago. There, the ‘Cats somehow kept the Terrapins out of their net for 120 minutes before prevailing in the penalty shootout, and that is sure to be fresh in the minds of players on both teams.

I’d like to give my expectations for what will happen in this matchup based on what we saw the first time these two teams played, especially since Northwestern hasn’t really altered its setup since then.

The Terrapins had 57% of the ball in October, and at home, being the higher seed, they will likely dominate possession even more. Normally, I would say this is a problem, but given what the ‘Cats have excelled in this year, it almost plays into their hands. Maryland will be expected to win this game easily, and will commit numbers forward, meaning there will be opportunity and space for NU to attack in transition.

Specifically, Maryland used a 2-2-6 in possession, which as I noted in my breakdown of that game, doesn’t provide the most secure rest defense.

If Maryland employs the same strategy, and if Northwestern can win the ball back in these situations, Jason Gajadhar and Bardia Kimiavi will run riot. That is a big if, and Maryland just simply being a better team will make it difficult to accomplish. However, the ‘Cats showed they could do it last time, so it isn’t unreasonable to expect them to do it again.

I don’t want to sit here and tell coaches who have a far greater bank of knowledge and experience than me what to do, but if I’m Terps head coach Sasha Cirovski, I’m changing the attacking shape. A symmetric 2-3-5 with less frequent overlaps from the fullbacks would provide a much more solid foundation to control the game and limit NU’s chances in transition. If Cirovski does make that switch, I’d say there’s almost no chance the ‘Cats win, but as it stands, I’d put the win probabilities are pretty close to 50/50.

If Northwestern does manage to pull off the upset, they’d face the winner of the match between No. 5 Penn State and No. 4 Indiana on Wednesday, Nov. 9.