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Three big questions for Northwestern men’s soccer

Russell Payne looks to take a next step in the program’s rebuild.

Northwestern Athletics

What’s missing for NMSOC to win?

Northwestern men’s soccer has all the tools to be a competitive program and fight for a top seed in the Big Ten. Yet, this season could mark the 10th consecutive season in which the program has failed to reach the NCAA Tournament, a grim record the ‘Cats want to eclipse. Fresh off a victory at the CONCACAF Nations League where he served as an assistant coach for the USMNT, head coach Russell Payne will be eager to instill a winning mentality to his players. Here are some of the main questions Northwestern will have to answer this season:

Third time the charm?

As mentioned in the intro, it’s been a very long time since NU made the NCAA Tournament. When Russell Payne was announced as the new head coach in 2021, there is no doubt the school had in mind this tournament drought, which has been plaguing the program for years.

This fall will mark Payne’s third season as head coach, and many will hope that this is the year the school can compete in the most prestigious collegiate soccer competition. There have been some positives in his first two seasons, with Northwestern making it to the semifinal of the Big Ten Tournament in 2021 after a surprise upset against two-seeded Maryland. That same Maryland team took out the ‘Cats last season in what seems to have become an annual rivalry.

Payne has now had the time to implement his system and create a distinct playing style. Previously the head coach at West Point, it took Payne four seasons for his team to boast a winning record and many hope he’ll be able to replicate his success in Evanston in even quicker fashion.

However, small steps are needed for this to happen. After struggling yet again with an overall 3-5-2 record (only one win in the Big Ten), it is mandatory for the team to win more conference games. A pleasing spring season, including a win against UIC and a full preseason with new recruits, can lead to a few more wins and a possible NCAA Tournament berth.

Who’s going to step up to the challenge?

With three exhibition games (at Marquette, Aug. 11, vs. IUPUI, Aug. 13 and vs. Western Michigan, Aug. 18), Payne will have ample time to decide on his first 11 for the season opener against St. Thomas. With about 10 players from last season’s roster leaving the program, major decisions will have to be made, and every player will have the opportunity to showcase to their coach why they deserve to be on the team sheet come Aug. 24. Some of the most notable departures are that of Ethan Dudley, Vicente Castro and Bardia Kimiavi.

Dudley arrived as a graduate student last season, and the center back made an instant impact, notching four goals (the most on the team) and starting in all 17 games. NU will heavily rely on sophomore center back Nigel Prince to lead in defense. His possible center-back partner Henri Richter will also look to leave his mark on the team, having not played his first year.

Castro was Northwestern’s main creative outlet for the past three years. The Chilean has tallied an impressive 16 assists and five goals over his NU career. Payne can turn to Jayvin Van Deventer to succeed Castro in his role. Van Deventer, a four-star recruit, will be a sophomore but accumulated a lot of playing time last season, logging 682 minutes and starting the ‘Cats’ last three games.

Kimiavi has been a standout player during his collegiate career with Northwestern. The tricky winger has played 79 times over five seasons. His experience and leadership will be missed in the locker room, as well as his impact on the field. There are a few players that can use his departure as an opportunity to step up, such as Paul Son, who started four games last season. Forward Christopher Taggard will also hope to impress in the preseason and find a spot in Payne’s plans having started five games (one goal) last year.

The rising sophomore will also be competing for a spot with forwards Joe Arena and Justin Weiss who will both be established seniors. A lot depends on Payne’s choice of formation, which points to be either a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1.

Can the new recruits make an instant impact?

A total of 14 players will join Northwestern in the fall, a hefty number of arrivals to compensate for the loss of almost a dozen players. It will be interesting to see how they fit into Payne’s system during preseason and the three exhibition games.

A battle for the starting keeper spot has already begun. Jackson Weymann, an Evanston local made his way back to E-Town as a graduate student after playing for Marquette and University of South Florida. Having already been with he team during spring season, he is already acclimated to the squad and has the upper hand for the starting goalkeeper position.

He will be competing with Rafael Ponce de León, who could very well impress in preseason and get his hands on that No. 1 spot. Coming from Villanova where he did not see any gametime, Ponce de León swapped one Wildcat for another and will look to see some minutes on the field at NU. An alite prospect coming out of high school, he was named MLS Next Best Goalkeeper 2020-2021 and All-American Best XI 2021-2022.

Some other interesting recruits include 6-foot-4 freshman goalkeeper Jude Bosshardt. In defense, a pair of brothers in Reese and Bryant Mayer are joining the ‘Cats, along with Fritz Volmar and Owen Noverr.

In midfield, new additions include Hungarian midfielder Peter Riesz, Glencoe native James Spatzek and three-star recruit Tyler Glassberg.

Finally, three incoming first-years will join the team up front. The first is Kai Reis, who won the MLS Next Conference Championships with LA Galaxy Academy in 2021 and 2022. He’ll be joined by Italo Addimandi, who last featured for Inter Miami II, and Gregory Cook, who won a national championship with New England Revolution U19.

Additionally, graduate student Ugo Achara Jr. will return to the program. He played for the Wildcats as a freshman and sophomore before joining Louisville for two seasons. Achara, who hopes to add to his seven goals for the ‘Cats, will add much needed experience to the team and can mentor a large group of freshman forwards.