The ‘Cats lost — and I’m not too sure what to say. The unbeaten run was always going to end at some point, but now that it is over, there’s just a weird sense of finality surrounding the season.
Maybe the explanation for that vibe is just me expecting this first loss to snowball into a calamitous run of results, because, in reality, the Wildcats still have all of their goals in front of them. They’re first in the Big Ten despite playing the fewest conference games of any team, and while their national standing took a hit following last Friday’s events, they’re still ranked in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25 — now No. 21, down nine spots from No. 12.
Ultimately — and this is just educated speculation — I think head coach Russell Payne’s primary aim is to get the team into the NCAA Tournament, and any conference accolades in addition to that are just a bonus. Especially as Northwestern has made a habit of winning games it arguably shouldn’t have over the past month and a half, that competition’s highly variable nature would probably work to its advantage.
However, given NU’s current RPI (No. 45) relative to the size of the tournament field (48 teams, including 23 conference champions getting auto-bids), getting selected this time around might require a Big Ten Tournament triumph. That’s far easier said than done. If a conference tournament win is necessary, winning the regular-season title would provide a massive boost, as Martin Stadium would host all of the ‘Cats’ matches.
So, while Northwestern can still accomplish everything it wants, there’s a real (and unfamiliar) sense of urgency surrounding the tail-end of the season. If the Wildcats want to give themselves the best chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a decade, they simply have to win — and then keep winning.
Before looking too far ahead, let’s take a step back to examine what happened in State College.
Penn State 2 (Awodesu 62’, Mangione 73’), Northwestern 1 (Weiss 36’)
Friday, Oct. 13, (University Park, Pennsylvania)
If you’ve seen a meme with the caption “When you lose a game of rock, paper, scissors to the mirror,” then it should be fairly straightforward, more or less, to understand what happened to Northwestern last Friday.
The Nittany Lions, in a lot of ways, were similar to the ‘Cats, which, from a strategic perspective, doesn’t yield many intriguing points of discussion. This symmetry between the two teams includes a 4-2-3-1 structure OOP, a reliance on set pieces, not many innovative concepts with the ball and, perhaps most importantly, an uncanny ability to “win” decisive moments.
In possession, the best part of Penn State’s play (4-2-1-3/4-1-2-3 structure) was how its two CBs neutralized the NU (4-2-3-1) press. Often the Wildcat CF, despite being left in a 2v1 against them, can apply the requisite initial pressure to harry one of them into a pass that Northwestern can close down and then win the ball back. That did not really happen this time out, to say the least.
The composure these CBs showed for PSU set the entire foundation for its (admittedly limited) attacking gameplan. The extra touches and willingness to drive forward and possibly commit the AM opens up a lot, although most of the time, like in the above clip, they’d skip the midfield line and just hit a diagonal to either winger.
Penn State was also very creative from dead ball situations. Doing what they did in the below clip immediately made it crystal-clear the Nittany Lions were trying to maximize the potential of every free kick and corner they were awarded throughout the match.
A PSU player getting his head to that out-swinging delivery also set a very dangerous and recurring precedent. The home side got first contact on the majority of its set pieces, and eventually, that trend led to a goal, with Jackson Weyman keeping out an initial effort from a corner, but parrying it right into the path of another Nittany Lion who easily found the back of the net.
That goal canceled out Justin Weiss’ opener, a close-range strike from a Christopher Thaggard cross-cum-shot that was preceded by a rare stretch of composed, thoughtful possession play from Northwestern.
Overall, the ‘Cats were at their usual level with the ball, and that deteriorated as the match went on. They never looked like getting a second, and while the usual 2023 NU men’s soccer script would have the team pulling a winner out of nowhere, this was not an ordinary night.
In the 73rd minute, after a hopeful ball up the pitch turned into a 2v2 for Penn State, a cruel twist of fortune befell Ibrahim Obeid. Just a couple of weeks ago, the senior profited off a defensive blunder on a driven ball across the face of the goal to score his first of the year. Faced with preventing a similar pass from getting through to a PSU winger on his back shoulder, he suffered a parallel fate, getting his angles and timing all wrong. Seconds later, a Nittany Lion was wheeling away in celebration.
NU mounted a tame comeback, with a couple of low-percentage chances coming and going. There might not have been much difference between the two sides between the boxes, but inside them, Penn State was vastly superior. So, in very Northwesterny-fashion, PSU walked away with a 2-1 victory.
Friday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. CT vs. No. 20 Michigan State (B1G+)
Tuesday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. CT vs. Indiana (BTN)
Sunday, Oct. 29 at 12 p.m. CT at Michigan (B1G+)