Cats Going to Final 8 for 1st Time in History (Men’s Soccer)

Ben Larrison

By Ben LarrisonThe Daily Northwestern

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the celebrations began. Coaches embraced on the sidelines, players rushed the field and one Wildcat kicked the ball high into the air. Playing in their second-ever NCAA tournament, only five years after going 1-13-3, the Cats are headed to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

In a physical, back-and-forth contest, Northwestern prevailed over the University of North Carolina at Greensboro 2-1 Sunday in Evanston.

“It’s the biggest win we’ve ever had here,” senior Gerardo Alvarez said. “And it’s huge to know that what we’ve done here … is paying off. And for the other guys, it’s a great feeling.”

The first half set the tone for what would be an intense, fast-paced game that featured six penalty cards and a combined 23 fouls. The Cats (14-7) scored first on a Brian Usinger penalty kick early in the first half. The PK came after a UNC Greensboro handball in the box on a Mark Blades shot in the ninth minute. Usinger fooled Spartan keeper Nate Berry with a low shot to the left corner and NU took a 1-0 lead.

The Spartans (16-8-1) immediately countered with a goal of their own. Fewer than 45 seconds after the Cats scored, UNC Greensboro pushed downfield and Michael FitzGerald headed a ball past keeper Justin Pines to even it up at one. It was the first goal Pines had allowed in the tournament.

But NU recaptured the lead and scored what would be the gamewinner in the 23rd minute. Alvarez fired a shot from about 30 yards out and sailed it over the head of Berry and into the upper-left corner of the net to give the Cats a 2-1 edge.

“I just kind of put my head down (and shot),” Alvarez said. “I knew we had a lot of wind, and I just kind of put it in the stream and put it right where I wanted to put it.”

With the wind at its back, NU kept the ball in the UNC Greensboro end for much of the first period. The Spartans had two offensive chances late in the first half, but Pines came up with the save on each, and the Cats entered halftime with the lead.

UNC Greensboro coach Michael Parker said that his team, which played into the wind in the first half, struggled to adjust to the blustery conditions in Evanston, while NU coach Tim Lenahan said the Cats thrive at home.

“Some people feel this is an uncomfortable place to play, (but) we all think of it kind of like heaven,” Lenahan said. “We love it out here.”

The second half featured the same physical play and scoring opportunities as the first, but neither team would break through with a goal.

In the 58th minute, UNC Greensboro took a shot from close range in the NU box that got past Pines, but it bounced off the right crossbar and was cleared by the defense. Then in the 67th minute, Cats junior David Roth had a one-on-one with Berry, but his shot rolled just right of the far post and out of bounds.

UNC Greensboro took a major hit to its comeback chances when Jokull Elisabetarson was given a red card in the 80th minute. Elisabetarson slid cleats-up into Roth to prompt the card, leaving the Spartans down a man for the final 10 minutes of the game.

Despite the loss, UNC Greensboro still mounted a charge with under five minutes to go, but Pines and the Cats’ defense withstood the assault down the stretch as NU held on.

Up next for the Cats is the University of California, Santa Barbara, a team that defeated NU 6-1 last year in a game that Lenahan said “wasn’t even that close.” But the sixth-year coach isn’t ready to think about Friday’s matchup quite yet.

“I’m going to think about Santa Barbara tomorrow,” Lenahan said. “Tonight I’m going to reflect on UNC Greensboro and enjoy this one a little bit.”

Reach Ben Larrison at [email protected]