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Men’s soccer: Northwestern battles St. Thomas and NJIT to open the season

The ‘Cats win their first two games for the first time since 2014.

Photo by Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

After an underwhelming 2022 season, Russell Payne’s ‘Cats have kicked their way back into rhythm. Let’s talk about everything clicking through two games into the new campaign.

Aug. 24 vs St. Thomas

Looking to win their season opener for the first time in half a decade, the ‘Cats set their sights on the Tommies. Initially meant to be played at Martin Stadium, the game was moved inside to Ryan Fieldhouse a day before due to extreme heat.

But the only heat felt through the first 45 minutes was the scrappy play between the two sides. Northwestern and St. Thomas combined for 21 fouls and three yellow cards in the first half. Even with the game remaining scoreless through 45 minutes, NU held the statistical upper hand, tallying three shots and four corners compared to zero in both categories for St. Thomas.

Out of the break, Northwestern capitalized first, with forward Christopher Thaggard cashing in just 82 seconds into the half. The sophomore noticed the Tommies’ defender sleeping with the ball, took it from him and finished the play off with his left foot for his second career goal.

Yet 10 minutes later, St. Thomas found an equalizer courtesy of Dutch midfielder Oliver Bieleveldt. The Tommies’ lone shot on goal in the match, Bieleveldt pounced on a disorganized set piece, opportunistically leveling the game at one.

With the match deadlocked at one heading into the final stretch, Northwestern continued its search for the go-ahead goal. With about 60 seconds left, Northwestern’s last opportunity came in the form of a corner. Defender Ibrahim Obeid curled one into the mixer, finding the head of first-year midfielder Peter Riesz whose header knocked the ball over to defender Nigel Prince. In a swarm of purple and gray jerseys near the penalty spot, Prince’s effort fell perfectly onto the left foot of Justin Weiss, who — in front of the outstretched arms of the Tommies’ goalkeeper — smashed a volley home, lifting the ‘Cats to victory with 42 seconds left.

A true down to the wire nail-biter, Weiss’ game-winner not only gave the ‘Cats a great way to start the season but excellent momentum heading into their next matchup against NJIT.

Aug. 27 vs NJIT

Riding high off the win, Northwestern looked to keep the mojo going against the Highlanders. Its first ever match-up against NJIT, the game also marked the first time the ‘Cats have ever played a team from the America East Conference.

Unlike the game against St. Thomas, Northwestern found its spark in the first half — just 25 minutes into play — courtesy of senior Rom Brown’s fourth career goal. Brown started the play in the middle of the park, spraying an outside-the-foot pass behind the Highlanders’ defense to a cutting Weiss. The hero from the home opener caught up to the pass on the goal line and patiently waited for Brown to cut down the middle of the NJIT defense. When Brown made his run to the front of the six-yard box, Weiss played a crisp ball to Brown’s right foot, allowing the Israeli midfielder to one-touch a shot past the goalkeeper’s right foot.

Retaining the one goal cushion into the break, Northwestern encountered a tighter, more physical game in the second half. Referee Christopher Koloffon pulled his yellow card out six times in the second frame as Northwestern hung onto its lead. But in the end, the ‘Cats had answers for the Highlanders, emerging victorious for another win on the young season.

Northwestern ended the game with eight shots (four on goal) compared to NJIT’s seven (two on goal), while the Highlanders tallied more saves (3 to 2), corners (5 to 4) and fouls (18 to 12) than the ‘Cats.

Looking Ahead

With 14 fresh faces new to Evanston and only 55.7% of the team’s total minutes played last year returning, this team looks very different than its 2022 edition. But in coach Payne’s third season in charge, things could not have started better in Evanston.

Led by Weiss’ goal against St. Thomas and his assist against NJIT, the ‘Cats are in a position to start the season off 3-0-0 for the first time since 2008, when Northwestern opened the season with wins against San Francisco, IUPUI and Iona.

Up next, the ‘Cats will hit the road, traveling up north to take on Milwaukee on Sep. 1. Then, they’ll continuing their stretch of away games with a Chicagoland clash against DePaul on Sep. 4. Northwestern is 3-14-2 all-time against Milwaukee, with its last date against the Panthers ending in a 1-1 draw last season at Martin Stadium. Against DePaul, the ‘Cats have fared better, leading the all-time series 19-10-3, with the teams’ last matchup in 2021 ending in a 2-0 NU win. After a fiery start at home, Northwestern will look to keep the winning feeling going with its first road trip on the horizon.