Men’s Soccer: Cats hope to die another day vs. Zips

Jonah Rosenblum

Northwestern has been working toward this moment ever since its campaign ended prematurely last season with a 3-1 loss to Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

“It means the world to me. Last year not making it was a really big downer for our program,” senior midfielder Peter O’Neill said. “Since last winter when we started to get ready for this year, the team’s mantra has been to get back to the NCAA Tournament.”

After climbing out of a deep hole in September, the Wildcats have clawed their way back into the NCAA Tournament and will begin their run toward a national title with a trip to Akron, Ohio, where they will take on the defending national champion Zips. It’s this type of premiere match that makes all the hard work worth it for O’Neill.

“All the work we’ve put in, especially the senior class, all the work that we put in over the summer to just get the team ready to really do something special,” O’Neill said, “it’s great that we’re finally back and getting to play a great opponent. It should be a great match, and you can’t really ask for anything better.”

Playing at Akron will present a stark challenge for the Cats, as the Zips have gone 44-1-5 in their last 50 home matches.

“There will be 5,000 or so students heckling us and saying all sorts of mean things,” O’Neill said. “It’s going to be fun, going into an environment as hostile as that is almost as fun. It just gets you fired up to play.”

The Cats haven’t played on the road all that often this season: They’ve played just five true road games, as opposed to 10 games in the cozy confines of Lakeside Field. From this point on, however, NU will be spending the bulk of its time on the road.

Before leaving for Akron, the Cats had to figure out a way to rest their legs after an exhausting set of games that concluded with a Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday.

Coach Tim Lenahan said his goal was to let his players rest Monday, before a training session Tuesday and practice in Akron on Wednesday.

“Obviously, we’ve got to recharge the batteries a little bit today and then tomorrow we will have a good training session,” Lenahan said Monday. “Tonight, we’ll kind of sort out all the tactics of how we’re going to play, go over that tomorrow, probably get an hour training session at Akron Wednesday and then you know game on.”

The Cats have adopted the “game on” mentality for a while now, riding an 11-game unbeaten streak into their match with the Zips. After averaging just 0.89 goals per game through their first nine contests, the Cats have averaged two goals per game in their last 11, despite a decrease in shots per game. Whereas past NU teams tended to rely heavily on striker Matt Eliason, the program’s all-time leading scorer, this Cats team had four players finish with double-digit point totals, with O’Neill and sophomore forward Reed Losee adding five assists apiece.

“Definitely, we’ve been able to diversify the attack a little bit which has been pretty key,” O’Neill said. “In the past, we kind of relied on Eli, which was good because he could score, (but) being able to switch it up a little bit and attack teams from different angles has definitely been an asset.”

The Zips have an electric offense of their own, averaging more than two goals and 16 shots per game this season. Forward Darren Mattocks led the way for Akron with 18 goals in 19 games played.

If NU were to defeat Akron, it would move on to Dallas to take on sixth-ranked Southern Methodist University in the second round. The Mustangs finished their season with a 13-6-1 record, capped off with a Conference USA Tournament championship.

Southern Methodist had a knack for close games during the 2011 season, with six of its games going into overtime and two contests progressing into double overtime. The Mustangs went 4-1-1 in those games. Eleven of their 13 wins came by one goal.

Senior forward Arthur Ivo represents the Mustangs’ greatest threat, as he leads the team with nine goals and 10 assists.

Senior forward Oliver Kupe insists his team will be ready, however, no matter how great the challenge. In previous matches against ranked teams, the Cats have held their own, tying all four contests this season.

“We’re going to be ready to play. We’ve played some great teams this whole season,” Kupe said. “It’s going to be no different. We’re real confident. And we’re really looking forward to it.”

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