The Daily Northwestern

Women’s Soccer: Writers ruminate on the Big Ten title race, Northwestern’s offensive identity

Nikia Smith evades an opposing player. The junior defender and the Wildcats are looking to make a late-season push for a Big Ten title.

Nikia Smith evades an opposing player. The junior defender and the Wildcats are looking to make a late-season push for a Big Ten title.

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Nikia Smith evades an opposing player. The junior defender and the Wildcats are looking to make a late-season push for a Big Ten title.

Garrett Jochnau, Ben Lewis, and Robbie Markus

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Women’s Soccer

The Daily’s women’s soccer writers examine the Wildcats as the regular season nears its end and the postseason looms.

With only two games left in their Big Ten schedule, NU sits just a point behind Penn State for first in the conference standings. What do the Cats need to do to end up with a regular season Big Ten title?

Garrett Jochnau: It starts and ends with the defense. The team’s hot start began with a series of shutouts, and its most impressive victories have come on the shoulders of the back line and junior goalkeeper Lauren Clem. NU’s scoring has been inconsistent, and sophomore forward Brenna Lovera’s injury isn’t doing the team any favors on that end. But in these final two games, the Cats can certainly pull out a pair of wins if the defense continues to shine.

Ben Lewis: The back line has to play at a higher level. Going into the Big Ten Tournament, it’s not only about making defensive stands but also keeping possession after a stop. NU’s poor transition to attack is the sole reason for its limited offensive success. Time and time again, the Cats have gifted opponents possession because of sloppy play out of the back. Fortunately for NU, Clem has bailed the defense out with 62 saves on the season, but one can only wonder when that luck will run out.

Robbie Markus: At the end of the day, the Cats need to find a way to get the ball in the back of the net. NU is currently tied for sixth in goals scored in the Big Ten, and, for a team that has aspirations of making a deep playoff run, that’s simply not good enough. The Cats have proved their offensive might occasionally, but they need a steady stream of offensive opportunities to show the offense can carry them. If that happens, and the defense continues to be the best in the conference, NU has a very real chance of taking the Big Ten title.

Injuries have hit the Cats hard along the front line, and NU has been moving players out of position at forward to try to generate offense. The results have been mixed, with the Cats averaging less than a goal per game over their last five matches. Where can they look to create chances with postseason play looming?

Jochnau: Executing off set pieces will be key. NU did that very well against Michigan, as coach Michael Moynihan took advantage of the Wolverines’ propensity to foul by putting senior defender Mary Erikson in the game to play significant minutes. Erikson’s powerful foot put the Cats in good positions to score off of those set pieces, and if they can remain scrappy in the box, they should be able to find the back of the net here and there, which could be enough if the defense shoulders the heavy work.

Lewis: Moynihan. I’m not saying he’s going to grab his mother’s wig, lace up and start blasting off upper-90 heaters, but I am saying that he’s a strategic genius. Although NU has underwhelmed offensively, Moynihan has still been able to craft a winning team. Against Iowa, for example, the Cats couldn’t create any opportunities, so Moynihan had to decide between playing for another scoreless draw or switching things up. By putting junior defender Nikia Smith at central forward, Moynihan disoriented the Hawkeyes’ defense and swung the game in NU’s favor. With the Big Tens looming, look to Moynihan to continue working his technical acumen.

Markus: Graduate defender Kaitlin Moore stressed the importance of involving outside backs in the offense to help create chances, and this is the key to generating offensive opportunities. With speedy players like Smith, the Cats can apply pressure to the final third by allowing their outside backs to push up the field. Overall, though, NU needs to continue to embrace its “next woman up” mentality that has worked so well recently. Junior defender Kassidy Gorman has stepped up and shown she is more than capable of taking on a new role at forward, as she showed when she drilled an overtime game winner against Michigan State. The Cats need to stay flexible, with players willing to embrace whatever role is given to them when the injury bug strikes.

Last year, NU lost in the first round of the Big Tens but made a run to the second round of the NCAAs in its first appearance since 1998. What should the Cats consider a successful postseason this time around?

Jochnau: NU has consistently proven that it can compete with the best Big Ten teams and clearly has its eye on the title. When the conference tournament comes around, the Wildcats should be expected to reach the semifinals, at the very least. A trip to the final is certainly a possibility, but they should only truly be disappointed if they lose before the semis.

Lewis: This year, it’s the title or nothing. If the Cats fall in the conference tournament and put on a mediocre show in the NCAAs yet again, the players can give themselves an apathetic slap on the back. Sixty years from now they can tell their relatives stories of the 2016 team and its miraculous 12-plus shutout season, but that’s not real success. NU has all the pieces needed to put hardware up on the shelf. The only question is: Will the Cats realize their potential?

Markus: For this NU team, the sky’s the limit. Clem and the defense have allowed five goals in 14 games this season. That in and of itself says that the Cats can grind it out with the best teams in the country. They clearly have the talent, and with Moynihan’s strong leadership, NU should look to make a run in the NCAAs. I’ll say that winning two NCAA tournament games would make for a successful postseason.