Men’s Soccer: Back line driving Northwestern to win column

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Meghan White/Daily Senior Staffer

Northwestern goalie Tyler Miller clears the ball at a home game. Miller and NU’s defensive line have been key to the Wildcats’ overall success.

Ava Wallace, Online Sports Editor

Heading into the last leg of the regular season, Northwestern sits near the top of the Big Ten in goals, points, shots and assists. The Wildcats also boast individual success: Freshman forward Joey Calistri and senior midfielders Kyle Schickel and Chris Ritter stand among the conference’s top scorers.

But from where the audience sits, it’s the Cats’ defensive line that’s worth paying attention to.

Sophomore goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who suffered his first career Big Ten loss Sunday against Penn State, leads a powerful defense made up of senior Jarrett Baughman, sophomore Grant Wilson, sophomore Nikko Boxall and junior Layth Masri.

The five have played as a unit since the middle of last season, when Wilson joined Masri and already-bonded Baughman and Boxall’s center-back duo to solidify the back line.

During the 2011 season, the defense posted 10 shutouts in 21 games. This year, it has made the Cats’ (10-3-2) six shutouts possible, with two conference games left in Indiana and Wisconsin and a non-conference matchup against Northern Illinois (3-8-3) Wednesday.

Despite their shutout mentality and fluidity as a unit, not all of the defenders prefer dwelling in the backfield during games. Wilson currently leads the conference in assists and junior defender Scott Lakin – who coach Tim Lenahan said brings speed and a “dynamic presence” to the defense – is most commonly found creating opportunities in the midfield.

Lenahan also makes a point to list Masri as a crucial member of the defense.

“When you talk about the backs you need to really talk about Layth,” Lenahan said. “He doesn’t have any goals or assists, but he’s really kind of that key that connects the back line to everybody else. He’s kind of the unsung hero of the team.”

But if there were ever an obvious hero for the Cats, it would be Miller.

Since starting in goal his freshman year, Miller has had 15 career shutouts and is just one shy of a second-place tie on NU’s all-time list. At the end of last season, Miller was named First-Team All Big Ten and currently stands in second place in the conference for shutouts.

Although Miller gives due credit to his veteran defensive squad when asked about his success, Lenahan consistently praises the sophomore for his game management and dependability against strong shooting teams such as Notre Dame, against whom the sophomore made a season-high 6 saves.

“(Miller) just has a great balance of when to come and when to stay, when to rely on his defenders and when to make the big play,” Lenahan said. “Tyler and I are from the same neck of the woods in South Jersey, so I know the makeup of his personality. He’s got a terrific competitive edge to him but also a great accountability with that competitive edge.”

At the other end of the field, the Cats head into Wednesday’s home match under the lights with nine different goal scorers for the season. They boast a 3-2 record against Northern Illinois since 2007.

The team’s array of scorers may very well be attributed in part to the accomplished defensive line.

Lenahan said the multitude of opportunities the Cats create in opponents’ territories and their characteristic control in the midfield comes from taking risks, and the offense would not be able to take the chances it does without a dominant and dependable defense.

“You have a veteran group back there that you know really understands their role. Now, maybe Chris Ritter can take a few more risks going forward, Lepe can take some more risks going forward,” Lenahan said. “And obviously, having Tyler back there as your last line of defense is a nice luxury to have.”

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