Last year, the Wildcats won 16 games (the most since 2016), made the Sweet 16 of the College Cup for the third time in program history, and went 13 games without a loss. Their schedule — and path to repeating that success — came out on July 18.
It's here.— Northwestern Soccer (@NUWSoccer) July 18, 2023
Our 2023 schedule out . pic.twitter.com/597pCzgb5C
While it’s unlikely the ‘Cats will be able to recreate the magic of last season completely, they should still be a formidable contender in the Big Ten. A big reason for that is the relative ease of the non-conference schedule. Unlike last season, where Northwestern played four of its first five games on the road, the Wildcats have four home appearances in their first seven matches.
It also seems as though the quality of non-conference opponent will take a slight dip. Last year, the ‘Cats upset No. 19 Xavier and No. 6 Stanford in consecutive games. This year, their out of conference slate includes just two teams that made the College Cup last year.
Those two squads, Vanderbilt and Virginia Tech, will both be road affairs for Northwestern. However, neither team ended last year ranked in the top 40 in RPI, whereas Northwestern finished 14th. Also, the ‘Cats played Vanderbilt in the second round of the College Cup, defeating the Commodores in a 2-1 slugfest.
None of the other non-conference opponents should strike fear in the hearts of Wildcat faithful. In fact, none of them finished last season in the top 100 in RPI. Two of Northwestern’s opponents, Weber State and Toledo, finished worse than 275th in RPI last year.
While a record similar to last year’s 6-1-1 is easily attainable out of conference, the Wildcats’ Big Ten success may be slightly harder to replicate. The seven-game unbeaten streak to open conference play last season was bolstered by six games with multiple goals, an output that will probably be trickier to reach this year.
Despite those worries, it is highly likely that Northwestern will start Big Ten play on a roll. None of the ‘Cats’ first four opponents — Purdue, Michigan, Indiana, or Illinois — cracked the top 100 in RPI.
As the calendar flips to October, however, the road gets a little rougher. Nebraska was one of only five teams to score multiple goals in a game against Northwestern last year, and they will likely come into Evanston hungry for a win after four straight matches against Big Ten teams who were top-50 in RPI last year.
The Nebraska matchup begins a rollercoaster ride for the Wildcats. After that matchup, they’ll visit a solid Wisconsin team, then travel to Iowa in an attempt to get revenge for last year’s stunning loss on Senior Night. The Iowa matchup should be pretty winnable, but it was also winnable last year.
After that, a Penn State squad that blanked the Wildcats in the Big Ten Tournament comes to town in what could be the biggest test of the season for Northwestern. After another home contest against an average Minnesota team, the ‘Cats will have to travel to Rutgers.
The Rutgers contest marks the end of the regular season. Much like the Penn State game, it will serve as a litmus test of sorts for the hopes of this year’s Northwestern squad. While the Wildcats went 1-0-1 against the Scarlet Knights last season, Northwestern dominated both games offensively. If the ‘Cats want to prove that they’re serious contenders not just in the Big Ten, but nationally, they’ll have to convert a lot more shots against Rutgers than they did last year.
Overall, this schedule seems much easier than last year’s. While Northwestern did battle with five ranked opponents last season, this year’s schedule will have no more than three opponents in the top 25 of the preseason rankings. The main issue is that three of the four toughest contests (Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Rutgers) are all on the road.
However, the Wildcats finished last season 7-1-1 on the road, so they’ve shown the ability to win matchups away from Martin Stadium. Assuming the team can avoid the slip-ups of last season (the losses to Kansas and Iowa come to mind), there's a chance the ‘Cats could have consecutive seasons with 15 wins for the first time in program history.