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Men’s soccer: Unbeaten run continues, propels Wildcats into the Top 25

Magical things keep happening at Martin Stadium.

JOSHUA SUKOFF / Northwestern Athletics

The ‘Cats are rolling.

After two more victories in the past week, both against Illinois-based teams at home, their record now sits at five wins, one draw and, still, zero losses.

The nation is starting to take notice of what’s brewing in Evanston as well.

Rom Brown was named in the College Soccer News National Team of the Week. Justin Weiss earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors. To top it all off, Northwestern found itself ranked 19th in the latest edition of the United Soccer Coaches Top 25 — highest among all Big Ten teams.

In the midst of this stream of optimism and good news surrounding the program, there’s no way I could be anything but positive about NU’s prospects heading forward, right?

Well, the answer to that question is pretty obvious. I’m still skeptical of the ‘Cats’ ability to keep winning matches in the manner they’ve been winning them, especially considering the two contests covered later in this article.

They do certain things well and are still clearly in need of improvement in other areas, but here is the bottom line: This is the best side Russell Payne has fielded across his three seasons here.

While the question “How good is Northwestern really” remains unanswered, and while I am extremely interested in the answer, right now, I do not care, and neither should you.

This is a group of players that have gone through some truly horrible seasons results-wise, and now, they’re soaring. They’re working for each other, they’re giving their all to execute the game plan the coaches have given them, and they’re reaping the rewards.

As much as I enjoy being the armchair quarterback of this team, ultimately, as a student at this university with a love for this crazy game, my desire to see this team succeed trumps everything else.

Long may the victories continue.

Northwestern 2 (Brown 14’, 90’), Northern Illinois 1 (Estrada 18’)

Friday, Sept. 8, (Evanston, Ill.)

I expressed positive feelings toward Northwestern’s tactical consistency last week, so, naturally, Payne and co. altered the construction of the team a fair bit in the first game after that article was published.

First, out of possession, the ‘Cats switched from a back four to five, lining up in a 5-2-1-2. Against Northern Illinois’ 4-2-1-3, that would presumably look something like the below diagram.

In practice, however, it was a completely different story. While the Wildcats nominally set up in a back five, they hardly ever had a flat line of five defenders at the back.

This is because at the start of every Husky sequence, the ball-side NU WB would push up onto the ball-side NIU FB. The remaining four in the last line would shift across accordingly, with the nominal WCB on that side taking up a FB-esque position, forming an extremely asymmetric 4-3-1-2.

For example, when the Northern Illinois RCB (No. 18) started with the ball, Fritz Volmar at LWB would move toward No. 24 at RB, while Owen Noverr then slid across behind him to mark the Husky RW (No. 25).

Looking at the above image, it’s not hard to infer what the decision-making process of No. 18 would be in this situation — the LB (No. 3) is in a lot of space (far more than his right-sided counterpart), so the ball should head in that direction.

Even if he wanted to play to the right, Ugo Achara Jr.’s pressing run is going be curved toward NIU’s right initially to prevent passes from heading in that direction.

So, No. 18 plays across to No. 17 at LCB with the idea that he will then find No. 3 in space. And that would be a fine idea, except for the fact Northwestern wants this as well.

Weiss jumps to No. 17 as soon as the pass is played, and Brown, originally on the right of a double pivot, begins moving in the direction of the Husky LB. This also means Collin McCamy, the other half of the pivot, is solely responsible for NIU’s AM (No. 13), so he adjusts his position to account for this man-orientation.

At this point, you should see what’s coming. With no other options, No. 17 sends the ball No. 3’s way, but Brown is closing in quickly as well. Northwestern, more or less, has its opponent trapped, and just has to “finish” the press by actually winning back possession.

As mentioned previously, this pressing trap was also possible if the ball started on Northern Illinois’ left, as Brandon Clagette would move out of his RWB position like Volmar did at LWB. NU would force play right, trying to squeeze the Huskies to the touchline.

Just as a side note, this isn’t the first time Payne has implemented a “pendulum” press — last season’s contest with Loyola Chicago is the first example that jumps to mind — but this is the first usage of these particular mechanisms, at least that I can recall.

Ultimately, it worked well, and NIU struggled to get settled in possession and really create anything of note in that phase of play. The Huskies did find success on the counter-attack, however.

With the ball, Northwestern also modified its structure, lining up in a 3-2-1-4 with both WBs venturing into high positions in their respective wide channels and a vertically staggered double pivot of Brown and McCamy.

I would venture as far to say this was the most composed and controlled the ‘Cats have looked in possession in any of their matches this season, especially in the first half. They, by far and away, had the best understanding the various patterns to temporize and escape any attempts from Northern Illinois at pressing. That alone creates a foundation of security which makes the ultimate goal — putting the ball in the net — much more attainable.

The below clip typifies their possession play from this match well, for a few reasons:

  • Usage of Rafael Ponce de León, who made his first start of the season in goal, as a pressure release valve when necessary.
  • Baiting the press. The combination of Brown occupying the LDM (No. 6) in NIU’s 4-2-3-1 and a Nigel Prince pass to Bryant Mayer drawing a jump from the LW. This frees Jason Gajadhar to drift to the right touchline and receive down the line from Mayer.
  • The CFs, Achara Jr. and Weiss in this case, shifting ball-side to then dynamically occupy the space in that area of the pitch.
  • Putting balls into the box.

Of the four features listed above, the last one easily played the biggest role in deciding the outcome of this game.

The ‘Cats got on the scoresheet first in the 14th minute with Brown rising highest to head home a McCamy corner, and that was only the beginning of the Huskies’ woes defending crosses.

Time and time again in the second half, NU would send the ball into the box from wide areas, and a Wildcat would get first contact. NIU nearly held on to a draw by somehow escaping a multitude of goalmouth scrambles unscathed, but its luck ran out at the worst possible time — 15 seconds from the final whistle.

A Justin Weiss flick-on of an Ibrahim Obeid cross fell kindly to Brown unmarked at the back post, and like Declan Rice in a similar situation against Manchester United earlier this month, a right-footed volley from the DM beat the GK at the now-near post to win the game.

Northwestern 4 (Weiss 2’, 35’, 47’ (p), Brown 34’), UIC 1 (Torres 5’)

Monday, Sept. 11, (Evanston, Ill.)

Like the ‘Cats, UIC entered this match boasting a 4-1-0 record. And, like the ‘Cats, UIC had tallied wins against NJIT and St. Thomas, but the Flames won by much more flattering margins. Additionally, the visitors had defeated one of NU’s conference colleagues, Wisconsin, just a week prior.

All this to say, there’s a strong argument to be made this was Northwestern’s toughest test to date. Based on the scoreline, you’d have to say the ‘Cats aced the exam, but in reality, this match was much closer than that.

Despite Payne only making two like-for-like changes to the lineup that started against Northern Illinois — Jackson Weyman returning between the sticks and Reese Mayer getting the nod ahead of Noverr at LCB — the structure of the team was reorganized.

Thankfully, that alteration wasn’t anything major or anything new. Instead of a 5-2-1-2 without the ball with a front two of Weiss and Achara Jr., the former dropped to LW while Clagette was pushed up to RW from RWB.

In short, it was back to a 4-2-3-1 press, but the IP structure was the exact same.

As previously mentioned, this was a close game, and based on the run of play, I’d be inclined to say the Flames edged it slightly.

However, and as you can probably guess looking at the final score, NU completely dominated in the “moments” of the match, and did that in the most quintessentially Northwestern 2023 Men’s Soccer ways. If elements of the goals scored sound familiar, that’s because they should:

  • Weiss 2’: In transition, the senior CF drifted wide on the ball-side, received a pass down the line from Reese Mayer and used his speed to escape the CB following him and create a shooting opportunity, which he buried.
  • Brown 34’: A McCamy corner found its way through a sea of Flames to reach Brown at the far post, who fired home from close range.
  • Weiss 35’: Clagette launched a long throw from the right touchline into the box, where it was flicked on by a UIC defender to Weiss at the back stick, who stabbed it home with his left foot.
  • Weiss 47’ (p): Given a golden opportunity to complete his hat trick from the spot shortly after the break, Weiss didn’t waste it.

If it wasn’t clear already, the ‘Cats will go as far as their potency in transition and from set pieces will take them. Conversely, their lack of ingenuity and quality in settled play will establish a limit on how far they can go.