Men’s soccer: Blades’ tough play helps NU stay sharp

Rodger Sherman

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For a player considered to be among the top defenders in the country, Mark Blades doesn’t exactly have an intimidating physical presence.But that has not stopped the 5’6″ senior from starting at Northwestern for four years.”I let the other guys underestimate me,” Blades said. “I like playing against bigger players, because they don’t think I can stay with them. But I know I can.”Blades has emerged as the leader of a defense that prides itself on being one of the best in the country.Last year, Blades was a third-team All-American after being part of a unit that allowed only 0.55 goals-per-game. This year, he’s on the watch list for the Hermann Trophy, awarded annually to college soccer’s best player, one of only eight defenders on the list.”Mark is really outstanding,” coach Tim Lenahan said. “He’s only 5’6”, but he’s got toughness and physicality.”In a 2-1 win against Lafayette, Blades injured his right shoulder in a violent crash with a Leopards attacker. Not only did he stay in the game, he became a more integral figure in the team’s attack – as the Wildcats pushed late to tally a game-winner, Blades moved forward and was often taking throw-ins, even though doing so made him grimace in pain.Blades brings a skill set many other defenders don’t: He’s very talented with the ball at his feet. He played midfield when he first started playing soccer. Now, as a left back, he’s often the one assigned to take free kicks and has two assists so far this season. Blades also knocked home three goals last year. “Having a left back that can attack the way he can is a luxury,” Lenahan said. “Not a luxury that a lot of teams have.”Blades’ skills handling the ball and his ability to dispossess attackers seem to come naturally to him because, in a way, it does: he’s been playing since the age of three, along with three soccer-playing siblings and two parents who played sports in college.Blades’ sister, Jackie, was a midfielder on NU’s women’s soccer team as a freshman last year before leaving the team, and his older brother, Gavin, who played at Yale, was probably the one who Blades credits with his interest in the sport.”When he started playing sports, I jumped in,” Blades said. “I wanted to do everything that he did, and I stayed with it because of him.”After the two outgrew backyard one-on-one soccer, they played on the same high school team. However, a snowboarding accident put Gavin in a coma, and although he eventually recovered, his playing days were over.”It’s weird to be the oldest one still playing,” Blades said. “But I kind of figured I’d be the last one. It’s my passion more than anybody else’s, and I love it more than anybody else.”That passion comes through on the field, as Blades is acknowledged by coaches and other players to be the leader of the defense.”We can always count on him,” junior midfielder Jack Hillgard said. “We know he’s been playing here since his freshman year, and he can shut down the opposing team’s best player.”Blades’ ability to eliminate offensive threats is a big reason why the Cats have posted a 46-19-9 record and three NCAA tournament appearances in his tenure at NU. He was only the second person to earn All-America honors of any sort for the Cats, and the second person to be named to the Hermann Watch List.With the team ranked No. 21 in the nation heading into Wednesday’s matchup against Northern Illinois, he very well could be a member of the only class in NU history to qualify for the NCAA tournament four times. Not bad for a short guy.”I’ve always been short,” Blades said. “But I play like I’m bigger than I am.”