As Northwestern players took turns posing with the Big Ten trophy after defeating Michigan 1-0 to clinch the regular-season title, it was hard to imagine that this was the same team that struggled to find consistency early in the year.
Northwestern did not begin its season looking like a team that was going to win a Big Ten championship. After heartbreaking last-second losses to Valparaiso and Portland, the Cats were left sitting at 1-3-1.
And then things changed.
NU started its run with back-to-back wins against UC Davis and Xavier. The Cats appeared to be shaking off the bad luck that plagued them earlier in the year, as they brought their success into conference play with a comeback tie against Michigan State. Coach Tim Lenahan said the team remained confident despite its early season struggles.
“We played really well the whole year,” Lenahan said. “I know the record wasn’t great to start the season. We did have to tweak a few things here and there. We talked about just worrying about the process: If we played well, we were going to win a championship.”
But then the team dropped an ugly 4-0 decision against DePaul later that week, and Lenahan decided that a change was needed.
“After the DePaul game, there was less coaching done,” Lenahan said. “You get to the point halfway through the season, you realize that the players had to take ownership of what we were doing. Before we played Missouri State, which started the second half of our season, I symbolically brought my keys into the huddle and gave them to Peter O’Neill and said, ‘It’s time for you guys to drive.'”
And drive is exactly what the team did, cruising to a 7-0-2 record after its debacle against the Blue Demons, and forcing the rest of the Big Ten to play catch-up. In the process, NU completely reversed the fortunes of its season, coming back in the final minutes to win or tie four games during that span.
“It was partly luck, losing some games we shouldn’t have,” junior midfielder Chris Ritter said. “But throughout the year, we’ve been the best team on the field for pretty much every game. We still have the same players, nothing’s changed in that sense. It’s maybe just our mentality. Once we got some wins under our belt, things started to roll our way.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing towards the end. The Cats received a tough break before the final game of the season, when senior forward Oliver Kupe was suspended for the regular-season finale after recording his fifth yellow card of the season against Indiana. NU would have to clinch without its leading scorer.
Kupe said it was an extremely difficult game to watch from the sidelines.
“It was the most nerve-wracking time of my life,” Kupe said. “I was just shaking and there were butterflies in my stomach. But I knew that the guys had it in them, and that they were going to pull it off without me.”
And after the ecstatic dog pile on the pitch and the poses with the Big Ten trophy, Lenahan was quick to point out what the title meant to NU.
“This is not just this team winning a championship,” Lenahan said. “This is this program winning a championship. All the guys that paid a lot of dues to make this happen, we’ve had a lot of good teams here in the last decade. The texts I got from 30 years of Northwestern soccer that this dream had become a reality were pretty awesome.”