Head Coach: Russell Payne
2021 Record: 6-9-3 (3-5 B1G)
Goals for: 19
Goals against: 20
After long-time head coach Tim Lenahan retired at the end of the 2020 season, it was clear, regardless of who succeeded him, 2021 was going to be a transitional year. Russell Payne was brought in after a decade of coaching the men’s soccer team at Army, and so began the process of reshaping and rebuilding a program that hasn’t won the Big Ten since 2011 or reached the NCAA Tournament since 2014.
Payne’s initial results were a mixed bag. The ‘Cats kicked off the season with a brutal 2-1 loss to Chicago State after leading for most of the game but followed that up with two wins, two draws and a loss in their non-conference games before Big Ten play started. The defense was looking better than the attack, as NU kept three clean sheets in those six matches, but scored more than one goal just once.
Big Ten opposition was significantly less kind to Payne and co. than what they had previously faced, as their first three conference games against Penn State, Indiana and Michigan all resulted in losses. A 2-0 win against local rivals Depaul following the Michigan loss gave the Wildcats enough momentum to pick up their first points in conference play with a 1-0 win over Ohio State. Of the next four matches, three were losses — a strong 2-0 win at Wisconsin being the exception — but Northwestern finished the year strong, winning 3-1 at home against Michigan State on senior day, a result that also secured qualification for the Big Ten tournament.
Since the ‘Cats were the seven-seed in an eight-team bracket, they’d have to travel to College Park for the second time this season to face Payne’s alma mater Maryland in the opening round. Earlier in the year, the Terrapins got the better of the ‘Cats, winning convincingly by a score of 3-1, but this time was different. Miha Miskovic put together one of the best goalkeeping performances ever for NU. Despite facing 11 shots on target with a total expected goals conceded (xGC) value of 3.26, the graduate student didn’t let one past, keeping the ‘Cats alive heading into a shootout after 110 minutes of scoreless play. Miskovic’s otherworldly form continued into the shootout, as the ‘Cats prevailed 3-2 on penalty kicks to advance to the semifinal.
There, they’d face Indiana, a team that beat them 2-1 in Evanston earlier in the year. Once again, Miskovic kept practically everything shot at him out of his net, but his resolve was eventually broken in overtime, as the Hoosiers pulled out a 1-0 victory in a game that could’ve gone either way. A harsh way to end the year, yes, but all things considered, it was an encouraging finish as well.
For a more in-depth look at the players joining the program this season, check out this article, but here’s a summary of the new faces. The ‘Cats signed a Top 5 recruiting class in the country, according to TopDrawerSoccer.com, featuring talent across the pitch that should be able to compete for starting spots from day one. Center back Nigel Prince and forward Christopher Thaggard are two names to keep an eye on, but all six recruits in the class will get an opportunity to impress this upcoming season. Additionally, NU brought in five transfers, helping offset the influx of inexperience brought about by such a stellar recruiting cycle.
The quantity and quality of the incomings was necessary given who left the program last season. Starting goalkeeper Miha Miskovic graduated, along with Ethan Bandre, his backup. Elsewhere in defense, top center back Spencer Farina moved on, and first-choice defensive midfielder Richie Bennett has also left. The losses aren’t as significant in the attacking department, as Bardia Kimiavi has returned to use his final year of eligibility as a graduate student, meaning forward Jose Del Valle is the only key contributor now gone
F Justin Weiss
It’s difficult to talk about Northwestern men’s soccer without mentioning Justin Weiss. As a sophomore last season, the Long Island native scored a team-high eight goals and registered two assists as well. Even more impressively, he led all players in the Big Ten — including number one overall draft pick in the 2022 MLS Superdraft, Ben Bender — in goals and assists in conference play. Most of the good that this team did in the final third came through Weiss in 2021, and there is no reason for that to not continue this year.
F Vicente Castro
While Weiss was the man to put the final stamp on a lot of Northwestern’s goals last year, Vicente Castro was the one putting him in positions to do so. The Chilean logged a team-high seven assists, while also adding a couple of goals of his own. If he and Weiss can continue to produce in such an effective partnership, the ‘Cats will be more than fine going forward, and enjoyable to watch as well.
M Collin McCamy
By far and away Northwestern’s most impactful freshman last season, McCamy displayed versatility and excellent defensive ability in his first season in Evanston. While he started the year as a left-sided central midfielder in a 4-4-2, a system change to a back three moved McCamy to left wingback. He was outstanding in both roles, winning over 60% of his defensive duels and averaging nearly six interceptions a game over the course of the year, according to Wyscout. Regardless of how Payne sets the team up in 2022, you can be sure the sophomore will disrupt opponents’ attacking progress and undoubtedly get into the attack himself.
Some numbers and commentary:
Here are some metrics to show how the ‘Cats stacked up relative to the rest of the conference against Big Ten competition last season, all courtesy of Wyscout:
Expected Goals (xG): 7th (out of nine teams)
Expected Goals Against (xGA): 9th
Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA): 8th
While some of these rankings are impacted slightly by having to face two of the best teams in the conference twice, this is all to say, the ‘Cats barely cut it in conference play last year, but that isn’t a criticism of anyone in the program. They simply did not have the foundation that many of their highly-ranked opponents did, and while one Top 5 recruiting class might not bridge the divide between them and an Indiana or Maryland this season, it definitely will in a year or two.
Although the directness in attack NU displayed last year is part of Payne’s M.O., hence the low possession numbers, he will not be satisfied with the passivity out of possession, shown by the PPDA, nor the lack of control with the ball. A lot of that does come down to talent, and was just out of his hands last year, but stylistically, this team is still a ways away from where he’d like it to be. As the talent level and fit of players into his preferred way of playing get to where he wants them to be, this Northwestern team is going to be completely different from where it was at the start of his tenure.
As for what this means for the upcoming year, improvement is likely and should be expected given how the roster has developed and has now had a year under Payne’s tutelage. However, there are still going to be inconsistencies and marks of a team in transition, so results still aren’t as important. It will likely take until next year at the very earliest for the ‘Cats to get back to the upper echelon of the Big Ten, so for now, enjoy the wins when they happen, but focus on the bigger picture: the cultivating of the A-grade talent that has come to Evanston and shaping of this roster into a team that Payne can call his.