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The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Men’s Soccer: What to Watch For: Northwestern looks to survive and advance in Big Ten Tournament grudge match against Michigan

Daily file photo by Jorge Melendez
Junior defender Ibrahim Obeid prepares to restart play with a throw. Obeid stepped into the starting right back slot following freshman defender Bryant Mayer’s injury against Green Bay last month.

When coach Russell Payne and Northwestern made the trek to Ann Arbor last Sunday to face Michigan, the team sat in a three-way tie for first place in the Big Ten. The team was in control of its own destiny, as a win would’ve shored up at least a share of the conference regular season title.

Instead, the Wildcats (10-3-3, 4-3-1 Big Ten) fell 3-0 to the Wolverines (4-5-7, 2-1-5 Big Ten) and dropped to fourth place in the conference standings. Just five days after the loss, NU can exact revenge on Michigan at home in the Big Ten Tournament’s inaugural round Friday.

Although the ‘Cats appeared as a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament a week ago, the program’s postseason prospects became murkier after Sunday’s slide. A win over the Wolverines would do wonders for NU’s hopes of extending its banner season under Payne.

Here are three storylines to watch for this Friday’s postseason battle in Martin Stadium.

1. Home cooking vs. roadkill

Despite dropping their penultimate home match against Michigan State on Oct. 20, the ‘Cats have been almost unplayable on their own turf, compiling an 8-1-1 record in Evanston. Three of NU’s four Big Ten victories came at Martin Stadium.

On the other hand, the Wolverines haven’t won a game outside of their home stadium, recording an 0-4-3 away record. Michigan also hasn’t scored an away goal since a 2-1 loss to Oakland on Sept 19.

With the Wolverines shifting from their traditional grass surface to the Martin Stadium turf, the ‘Cats will certainly boast home field advantage, carrying a chip on their shoulder to boot. It’s difficult enough to defeat an opponent twice in one week, and Michigan will have to reverse an alarming trend to do so.

2. NU searches for first postseason win since 2021

During Payne’s first season in charge, the ‘Cats snuck into the postseason, grabbing the seventh seed on the final day of regular season play. NU went on to upset Payne’s alma mater, Maryland, on penalties, before bowing out to Indiana in overtime.

Last year saw a similar table shakeup, when then-graduate student center back Ethan Dudley’s late conversion from the penalty spot sent the ‘Cats into the eighth and final seed in the Big Ten Tournament. NU couldn’t repeat its 2021 magic, dropping a 1-0 heartbreaker to the top-seeded Terrapins.

Now, Payne will coach his first home playoff game in Evanston — the first matchup where his team is considered the favorites on paper. Of course, the battle will play out on the pitch and favorites are all for naught, but the ‘Cats have a legitimate chance to secure a spot in the next round.

3. Semifinal spot up for grabs

It’s been 12 years since former coach Tim Lenahan led NU to the team’s last Big Ten Tournament championship — the program’s lone postseason conference title.

Payne has a prime opportunity to reach the heights his predecessor lofted the ‘Cats to, but it all starts with a victory over the Wolverines. The danger comes in overlooking an opponent, though the higher seed likely means very little to a young, hungry NU side seeking to put its last outing on the backburner.

Expect a feeling out period in the game’s first run of play, but both sides know the importance of grabbing that early goal. 

With senior forward Justin Weiss and graduate student forward Ugo Achara Jr. leading the ‘Cats up top, and Michigan’s young talisman in forward Alex Waggoner spearheading his side’s attack, legacies are on the line Friday night.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jakeepste1n

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