Gerez: Big Ten Tournament loss may be blessing in disguise for men’s soccer

Julian Gerez, Development and Recruitment Editor


This month, No. 16 Northwestern (9-3-6, 4-1-3 Big Ten) beat Wisconsin in its last Big Ten regular season game. The Wildcats finished the conference season with 15 total points, just a single point out of first place and the Big Ten regular season championship.

But even though NU only lost one conference game and went undefeated at home all season, it earned the third seed in the Big Ten Tournament.

The Cats had to face the sixth seed in the conference: then-No. 2 Indiana, one of the most successful programs in the history of collegiate soccer.

“That’s your reward,” coach Tim Lenahan said after the game against Wisconsin that sealed their tournament rivals. “You finish one point out of first and you play the number one team in the country.”

There was a bit of a silver lining: At least the Cats would get to play at home. And so NU took on one of the best teams in the country at Lakeside Field on Sunday and lost in penalty kicks after double overtime, ending NU’s chances at a Big Ten title. But maybe the loss was a blessing in disguise for the Cats’ chances at success in the NCAA Tournament, which Lenahan described as the “first and foremost” goal of the program he has helped build in his 14 years as a head coach.

The team will have an opportunity to prepare and focus for its matches instead of increasingly tiring its players with more games. The Cats usually have trouble with midweek games, as evidenced by their surprising loss against Loyola Chicago. Additionally, 7 of the 18 games this season for NU have gone into overtime, so players the team leans on a little bit more heavily, including Nathan Dearth, Joey Calistri, Cole Missimo, Connor Holloway, Brandon Medina and even goalkeeper Tyler Miller — all of whom have played in every single game this season — may be a little worn out.

The team is built in Lenahan’s traditional counterattacking style and is strongest in its defensive qualities, which in a single-elimination tournament setting can be more advantageous than an offensively stacked team. Thus, after some time off, the Cats should be dangerous in the NCAA Tournament.

NU has the fifth best goals-against average in the country, conceding only 11 goals in 18 games. Anchored at the back by senior goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who is essential to the team not only with his incredible saves but his leadership in marshaling the defensive unit.

Ahead of him, the rock-solid center back pairing of senior defender Nikko Boxall and sophomore defender Nathan Dearth have been able to shut down their opponents to great success.

Offensively, two players have burst onto the scene for NU this season.

Sophomore forward Mike Roberge scored three straight goals in three straight conference matches earlier in the season, including the match-winning goal against Penn State.

Junior midfielder Cole Missimo scored only one goal in each of his last two seasons but has put 5 goals into the back of the net this year in addition to four assists.

And last year’s top scorer, junior forward Joey Calistri, who fell into a 6-game goalscoring drought, is now finding the back of the net again with his brace against Wisconsin.

The attack hasn’t entirely gelled yet, but the defense is its usual solid self. Forget football, there’s much to look forward to this year in the realm of “futbol” for NU.

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Twitter: @JulianEGerez