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Men’s soccer: A Payne-ful year, but ideally a foundational one

The real Payne was trying to watch some of these non-conference teams’ streams.

Twitter @NUMensSoccer

Northwestern’s fall campaign came to an end last Friday at the hands of Maryland in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, putting its final record at 3-9-5.

There wasn’t much immediate gratification enjoyed by anyone affiliated with the program over the last two-plus months, but there never were, nor should there have been, expectations of anything else.

However, there was a decent amount of progress made, and a lot of decisions made by coach Russell Payne that will benefit the program down the line and close the gap between the ‘Cats and the top teams in the conference. Before we can get to that, we have to look back at what was, for the most part, a forgettable year, one last time.

Season recap

NU kicked off the year with an enthralling 3-3 draw against Chicago State, deploying a 2-3-5/4-3-3 in and out of possession that, I’ll admit, sold me a dream on what this team could accomplish. The following match, a 1-0 loss at FGCU, was a much better indicator of what was to come.

The ‘Cats remained winless through the next three matches, where they used a back three system that, respectfully, was doomed from the start. The low point of the year likely occurred during this run, as Northwestern conceded six goals in 90 consecutive minutes from the Villanova second half through the first half of the Western Michigan match. Thankfully, Payne abandoned his pursuit of being the American Antonio Conte in the second half against WMU, introducing a 4-2-3-1/2-3-5 system that he kept from that point onward.

In their first full match using the structure that we’re all too familiar with now, the ‘Cats bested Houston Baptist 2-1 to pick up their first win. Notably, Jason Gajadhar made his first start and score his first goal of his collegiate career in that game, and he did not leave the starting XI, unless for rest, after that.

Northwestern took that remarkable one-game winning streak into conference play, where it conceded 11 goals and scored just four in its first three matches, all losses, against Rutgers, Michigan and Indiana. The 4-1 defeat at the Hoosiers was particularly crushing, as the ‘Cats opened the scoring early in the second half before conceding three in the next four minutes, and Vicente Castro left the game with an injury that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Unfortunately, this would not be the first game where they squandered a lead.

NU followed that up with two draws against Penn State and Maryland, with a late goal by the then-No. 8 Terrapins taking away what Payne thought could’ve been a win. Additionally, another key contributor in Justin Weiss picked up an injury during that time frame, and he would not appear again until the Big Ten Tournament.

After a 3-1 win against Northern Illinois, the ‘Cats traveled to Ohio State where they gave away two penalties that sealed a 2-1 loss. Then, a 1-0 defeat against Wisconsin on Senior Day all but ruled out their chances at a postseason run. However, Northwestern was able to grab its first, and only, Big Ten victory of the season on the last day at Michigan State, and with the help of Penn State, Payne and Co. ended up in the conference tournament as the eight seed.

This meant it’d face Maryland, the regular season champion, again, this time in College Park. After playing to, and even above, the Terps’ level for the first half-hour, the ‘Cats faded and Maryland eventually found the back of the net to win 1-0.

Looking ahead to 2023

As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t a great year, but there were a couple of important developments that will provide a strong platform to build off of heading into Year Three of Payne’s reign.

First, there was a striking level of tactical progress made throughout the season. The period of two-and-a-half games in September where NU played a back three were, no joke, some of the worst viewing experiences of my life, and I can’t imagine it was any more enjoyable for those who were wearing purple on the pitch. The 4-2-3-1 that became the go-to shape from late September-onward, while not perfectly in line with my ideal tactical blueprint, was much better, and introduced a whole new world of possibilities with the squad.

In this system, Payne used Castro in a false nine role and played Weiss off the left wing when they were both healthy, a decision that worked for the most part. Plus, it allowed Brandon Clagette to push up from right back and utilize his best attributes, and the team was able build up possession and press much more effectively. However, there were still some square pegs being forced into round holes, and as the overall talent level of the roster and familiarity with the system increase, so should the performances.

Speaking of talent, I couldn’t go through this entire article without mentioning Northwestern brought in a top five recruiting class nationally, and while that was partially due to the transfers, the freshmen also had a tremendous impact.

Nigel Prince had the right center back position locked down for the entire year, midfielder Jayvin van Deventer and striker Christopher Thaggard got plenty of opportunities and Paul Walters served as Christian Garner’s understudy in net. And then there’s Gajadhar, who made the Freshman All-Big Ten First Team, who has looked like the gem of the class so far. All will play considerable roles next season.

This transitions nicely into my next talking point: What will next year’s team look like?

As it stands, there are only four names I’d say absolutely have to be in the starting lineup next August, assuming the system stays the same.

This is also the situation where all seniors with their additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic do not return. Of those, Logan Weaver and Castro would also be on the list of must-starts. Weaver showed a spark that was missing at left back for most of the year when he was injured, and Castro is, well, Castro.

Here’s a rundown of the situations at the remaining positions:

Goalkeeper: Christian Garner, a grad transfer, was the starter for the entire year. Walters looks most likely to be the guy in 2023, but Payne might seek out another transfer depending on his comfort level with the rising sophomore.

Left Center Back: It will take a lot to replace Ethan Dudley, who brought a level of leadership, composure and confidence — sometimes too much of the last one for his own good — as well as a strong left foot and frame. Hopefully the ‘Cats can recruit someone here, but it might be down to another transfer to cover the position for a year.

Midfielders: Here, it’s not that there aren’t enough bodies, it’s just none of them have looked convincing enough to be surefire starters. Rom Brown and Collin McCamy became the preferred pairing down the stretch, while Danh Tran and van Deventer, more attacking options, also got playing time. A dark horse could be Henri Richter, the only freshman in the incoming class to not see the field, but who knows.

Wingers: Unlike the midfield, there’s a severe lack of options. Paul Son might be the only natural winger on the roster next season, so if Payne doesn’t want to be shoehorning van Deventer and Thaggard in on the right again, he should target this area on the recruiting trail.

The offseason dictates what the expectations for 2023 should be, but at this point in time, reaching the Big Ten Tournament should be the bare minimum. If the coaching staff manages to secure another high-end recruiting class and can fill in most of the gaps in the roster, then maybe finishing in the top half of the conference standings becomes a more suitable target.

Regardless of what happens between now and next season and over the course of the years Payne is at the helm, he must ensure that going 3-9-5 this year was worth it. This should be the bottoming-out point of the rebuild, and hopefully the players, coaches and fans get to enjoy more success next year.

And no more three-at-the-back, please.