That was certainly a season.
Despite taking a massive step forward from 2022 and finishing with a 10-3-4 record — reaching double-digit wins for the first time since 2014 — Northwestern’s year carries an air of disappointment. It’s a natural result of starting with an unbeaten run of 12 games before losing four of the last five.
In a lot of ways, though, this is simply an unreasonable feeling to associate with the team and the season it had, even if it is the gut reaction to do so. First off, back in August, everyone, myself included, did not anticipate anything more from the ‘Cats than being one of the bottom-feeders in the Big Ten. As we all know, they blew that expectation out of the water, and nearly ended up winning the conference.
Secondly, NU’s schedule got considerably tougher in the latter stages of the year. As a result, the drastic downturn in form — following such a phenomenal run of results — is likely just a function of the quality of competition.
My objective assessment is Northwestern’s final position (fourth) in the Big Ten standings is roughly where it “deserved” to finish, and compared to Payne’s first two seasons at the helm, that’s a massive improvement. However, if NU wants to continue on this upward trajectory, there’s also a lot of necessary, in my opinion, improvement still to be done. As I’ll get into later, there’s no guarantee that development occurs, and the program under Payne might have hit its approximate ceiling over the last two-plus months. Before I get all doom and gloom, though, let’s look back at some of the highlights this team produced.
Moments to Remember
Rom Brown’s last-gasp winner against Northern Illinois
The headline and video below speak for themselves.
90' | GOAL! ROM BROWN AGAIN! CARDIAC 'CATS IN FRONT! pic.twitter.com/LdlsFZutHW— Northwestern Men's Soccer (@NUMensSoccer) September 9, 2023
Justin Weiss’ hat trick vs. UIC in 4-1 win
Based on the NCAA’s RPI rankings, the Flames were the second-best team Northwestern faced this season. Behind a career day from Weiss, the ‘Cats made easy work of their in-state opponents to move to 5-0-1.
Beating Maryland 2-0 in College Park
Everything about this match, which usually would be a massive challenge, came up purple. Collin McCamy fired an absolute rocket past the Terrapin GK late in the first half to give NU the lead, and a Christopher Thaggard goal after the break provided the ‘Cats an advantage they would not relinquish. Jackson Weyman’s “antics” in the dying moments put a nice bow on top of an enjoyable Wildcat win.
Jayvin Van Deventer’s wondergoal against Rutgers
There’s no debate — this was the goal of the season. Van Deventer’s fancy footwork and curling finish iced the game for Northwestern, extended its unbeaten run to 12 matches, and also played a big role in the sophomore seeing a lot more of the field following this contest.
Jayvin Van Deventer. Unreal. pic.twitter.com/qO9Lvhjb7F— Northwestern Men's Soccer (@NUMensSoccer) October 8, 2023
Gritty 1-0 win vs. Indiana at Martin Stadium
Back-to-back 2-1 losses to Penn State and Michigan State were a huge blow to their conference title hopes, but this game brought the Wildcats right back into the picture. Despite being outshot 21-4, Northwestern only needed a Nigel Prince goal in the 25th minute to prevail over the eventual Big Ten champions.
Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond
I can’t think of a better way to organize my thoughts here than doing “Positives” and “Negatives” sections, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
The back line and midfield will be relatively unchanged. Bryant Mayer (RB), Prince (RCB) and Fritz Volmar (LB) all nailed down their respective positions in 2023, and a McCamy/Jason Gajadhar double pivot with Van Deventer further forward seems the likeliest midfield trio moving forward.
That means the only question mark in these areas of the field is the LCB spot. Either one of Henri Richter or Owen Noverr, both of whom saw minutes this past season, fills that hole, or the coaching staff goes out and gets another experienced transfer to step in, following in the footsteps of Ethan Dudley in 2022 and Reese Mayer this past season.
Payne and co. have shown a remarkable ability to recruit. The current talent level of the squad is a lot higher than it was three years ago, and even better, it’s actually showing on the field. If the coaches continue delivering the prospects and transfers like they have, the ‘Cats won’t be less “talented” than anyone in the conference any time soon.
Northwestern’s pressing and general defensive principles are excellent. This has been increasingly evident as Payne’s time in Evanston has gone on, and where most of my praise toward the NU tactical setup has been focused.
The ‘Cats’ have hardly ever shown enough with the ball, even in this past season when they were finding the back of net regularly. There’s no other explanation for the issues I’ve harped on again and again — excessive verticality, lack of reliable patterns in all phases, especially in the final third against deep blocks — than the in-possession game model being the problem. Payne has shown a lot of willingness to adapt the attacking structure, but simply altering the positions of players doesn’t make these issues go away. The behavior and decision-making of the individuals within the collective organization must improve, and the continuous reliance on transitions and set pieces just isn’t enough to consistently win games.
The roster is very thin in attack, and lacking experience. Not only are there strategic questions to be answered at this end of the pitch, but there are personnel ones too. The presumptive losses of Weiss and Ugo Achara mean the front three currently consists of Tyler Glassberg, Thaggard and Paul Son, which produced a combined five goals and assists this past season. For a team that struggled as much in possession as this one did with a goal machine like Weiss, I can only imagine what the forward group will look like without him.
In short, the 2024 version of this outfit is shaping up to be a more extreme version of the 2023 group. The defense will only get stronger, and the attack is primed to see some regression. Granted, a few high quality transfers could alter that calculus, but the Wildcats’ identity is not changing.
Ultimately, if there isn’t discernible improvement in Northwestern’s possession play next season, I’m going to start developing serious concerns about the long-term trajectory of this program under Payne. Relying on having a Weiss-level forward to get the requisite level of production from the attack just isn’t realistic, sustainable or optimal. The results are always important, but my primary goal in 2024 is for the ‘Cats to start looking like a team that wants the ball, wants to dominate the ball and wants to control the game.