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Women’s soccer’s Thursday match against No. 10 Rutgers is its biggest yet

This week’s game could decide who the top dog, or cat, is in the Big Ten.

Maren Kranking/Northwestern Athletics

In a year that many prognosticators did not see coming, Northwestern women’s soccer is off to its best start since 2016, when the team went 16-3-4 and won the Big Ten regular season title. On Thursday, the Wildcats can shut down preseason doubters once-and-for-all and solidify their place as conference and national title contenders.

No. 8 Northwestern will get the opportunity to prove it is worthy of the team’s highest ranking in program history when No. 10 Rutgers comes to Evanston Thursday. The reigning Big Ten Champions pose the greatest challenge of the season so far, and despite their respective rankings, a victory for the upstart Wildcats over the powerhouse Scarlet Knights would most certainly be considered an upset.

The two teams, after both qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in 2018, have largely gone separate ways. Northwestern went 18-25-5 in its three full seasons since then, with just a 39% win rate in conference play. Meanwhile, Rutgers continued its dominance, clinching a trio of tourney berths to extend its postseason streak to a whopping 10 consecutive years. The Scarlet Knights have made deep runs in several of these tournaments, including a College Cup Semifinals appearance last season.

Four seasons after his team’s last tournament appearance, head coach Michael Moynihan now looks to lead NU back to the level of success it experienced from 2015-18, when Northwestern played in the NCAA Tournament for four straight years. Over halfway through the 2022 season, the ‘Cats appear primed for a postseason berth behind a dominant defense and an offense that can strike from anywhere in the lineup.

Northwestern’s newfound success comes via the aging and development of its stars. While largely an inexperienced team in 2021, the ‘Cats returned the majority of their production this season, led by midfielder Josie Aulicino’s 16 points. Seniors Rowan Lapi and Danika Austin have excelled in their roles of captains, while Aurea del Carmen has stepped up as the secondary goal-scorer. Additionally, Meg Boade, Ella Hase, Emma Philips and Nicole Doucette have all made the leap to become full-time starters, joining mainstay Lily Gilbertson in a disciplined and experienced unit. Add in first-year Caterina Regazzoni, who accounted for a goal and two assists herself last week at Nebraska, and Northwestern has an incredibly solid lineup capable of making a postseason run.

That doesn’t even include NU’s pair of goalies. After four straight years of Mackenzie Wood holding down the net, the ‘Cats finally needed a new goalkeeper. Luckily for them, they found two.

All season, Moynihan has rolled with a two-goalie lineup, starting first-year Reiley Fitzpatrick for the first half before subbing her out for Wake Forest graduate transfer Mia Raben to begin the second. This has happened every single game thus far, regardless of how Fitzpatrick played and regardless of the score.

To say it has worked so far this season would be an understatement. Fitzpatrick and Raben have allowed just six goals combined on the season, putting together a 0.55 Goals Against Average rate, good for third-best in the Big Ten. Raben herself leads the conference in GAA (0.364), while ranking second in save percentage (0.913%). The goalkeepers have contributed to six shutouts this season, including a stretch where Northwestern shut out four straight opponents, among those being No. 19 Xavier and No. 6 Stanford. Even though the strategy may seem unorthodox, it has a big part in the defensive success the ‘Cats have had in 2022.

Northwestern’s 2022 season has already been one of the best in school history, and a victory over Rutgers would establish this team as a true contender for the College Cup. While the headline might bring some disagreements and mentions of this season’s earlier takedown of No. 6 Stanford, a win Thursday would mean significantly more. For starters, the ‘Cats had nothing to lose against the Cardinal, who have now dropped out of the United Soccer Coaches’ Top 25 despite still receiving votes. A loss to the No. 6 team in the country was largely expected from Northwestern, a team that had already lost to Kansas and tied Oakland.

However, the pressure is now on. Northwestern has won seven straight since that draw with the Golden Grizzlies and is currently ranked higher than perennial powerhouses like Rutgers. As the season creeps closer to its end, top matchups like the Scarlet Knights, Illinois, No. 23 Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State will prove whether the Wildcats are legitimate or not, and Thursday’s game will be the first indicator of whether this is a team that can make a significant run toward a Big Ten title and the NCAA Tournament.

The ‘Cats aren’t in a make-or-break situation against the Scarlet Knights; if NU falls, its season is still far from over. However, the game should serve as a litmus test for deciding whether the Wildcats are serious contenders or not. The team is well-equipped to make the leap, and if its budding stars are able to execute the same way they have all season, Northwestern will prove it belongs among the nation’s best.

Moynihan and company will kick off against the Scarlet Knights at Martin Stadium this Thursday at 7 P.M. CST. Admission is free for all, and the contest will be available for streaming on B1G+.