Men’s Soccer: Struggles ready team for tourney

Jimmy Mitchell

As the No. 2 team in the nation for a large portion of the 2008 season, Northwestern achieved its highest ranking in history. The Wildcats, who did not lose in their first 13 games, seemed poised to go on a playoff run deep into the NCAA tournament.

But NU’s fortunes quickly faded as the team dropped three of its last four games and then fell to Michigan State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament.

Now the Cats (13-4-2) are on the outside looking in.

NU did not earn one of the top 16 seeds in the NCAA tournament and a first-round bye. Instead, the team will take on Loyola-Chicago (12-6-3) tonight at Lakeside Field.

Senior defender Drew Ratner said the Cats’ recent struggles have prepared them for the difficult road ahead.

“The last five, six games, including the (Big Ten) tournament, have been the toughest games of our season,” he said. “I think they’ve really prepared us well for the upcoming tournament. I don’t think we’re going to play a team as good as (Michigan State) probably for a while in the tournament.”

The strength of NU’s opponents has helped prepare the team for tournament play, coach Tim Lenahan said. Michigan, Indiana, and Michigan State – the three teams that have defeated NU – earned the No. 11, No. 6 and No. 4 seeds in the tournament.

Nevertheless, the Cats are not looking past Loyola-Chicago, Lenahan said. The two teams battled in a hard-fought contest on Oct. 28 in Chicago, where NU escaped with a 1-0 win.

“Loyola is a good team,” Lenahan said. “They had to win their league to get in. They have that tournament edge to them. We had a very tough game when we played down there just a couple weeks ago. So we’re expecting a challenge.”

The Cats’ current plight contrasts with their position in last year’s tournament.

NU earned the No. 9 seed in 2007, fell to Illinois-Chicago in the second round after nearly a three week layoff between the end of the Big Ten tournament and their NCAA tournament game.

“Last year we had a bye, and we had such a long time off,” Ratner said. “By the time we played UIC, they were on such a roll that they just kind of carried that momentum. I think it’s going to be nice, if we can beat Loyola, to get a kind of momentum flowing into the tournament.”

Two years ago, NU won at home in the first round of the NCAA tournament before upsetting Saint Louis on its way to the round of eight in the tournament.

For seniors like Ratner and defender Brian Usinger, Friday’s match represents a possible end to their tenure on the field.

“We’re just hoping to survive and advance, take one game at a time,” Usinger said. “And hopefully my career won’t end on Friday night.”

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