Men’s soccer: A must-win for can’t-wins

Dan Ryan

Saturday’s matchup between Northwestern and Michigan State will feature two teams that know how to play just well enough to lose.

The Wildcats (3-3-1) blew back-to-back games in the final minutes against Portland and Valparaiso before shutting out UC Davis and Xavier to get back to .500.

The Spartans (1-5-1) have seen three of their matches go into overtime so far this season, losing two off golden goals to Detroit and Georgetown. Unlike NU, however, Michigan State has yet to turn its season around.

The biggest problem for the Spartans this season has been scoring, and this plays right into the Cats’ strength so far: defense.

“Tyler Miller, our goalie, has been playing great,” junior midfielder Chris Ritter said. “He’s got four shutouts and he was Defensive Player of the Week (two weeks ago), so he’s playing great for a freshman.”

Ritter added that the team’s strong defensive play extends beyond its goalkeeper.

“Then our two centerbacks, Nikko (Boxall), another freshman, is also playing great back there and Jarrett (Baughman) is playing well also,” Ritter said. “The group is getting pretty close-knit. Defending is always our priority.”

While defense has been the team’s trademark to date, Baughman knows the Cats are capable of playing far better on offense. Even though Ritter was just named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, NU has managed only 20 goals this season, ranking last in the Big Ten in shots and second-to-last in goals.

“We have to make sure we don’t get too much into the grind game,” Baughman said. “We just have to get back to playing soccer. As much as I like playing defense, I would rather not have to. I would rather see our team keep the ball a little more. We just have to get back to playing like we can. It’s important to be able to play like this, but it’s even more important to be able to play soccer. And we have the players up top to be able to do that.”

Despite the team’s recent surge, the road does not get any easier for NU. The Big Ten conference figures to provide a tough challenge for a team looking to get back in the NCAA Tournament after missing the cut last season.

“The Big Ten was the No. 1 conference last year, and this year we haven’t had the same amount of success in our out-of-conference schedule,” coach Tim Lenahan said. “(But the Spartans are) a veteran group. They do a very good job of every year having five or six seniors on the field, so being able to match their intensity when you have a Big Ten game (is tough).”

Lenahan expects that intensity to be an even greater factor on Saturday evening, as the team is pairing with the football team to market its Big Ten opener at Lakeside Field.

“We’re going to market the game with the football team, so hopefully we’ll have a good crowd,” Lenahan said. “(This is) the first night game with all the students back and classes starting, so hopefully it’ll provide some good energy out here for a good game.”

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