The Northwestern men's soccer team needed three things to go their way to secure a regular Big Ten championship, and they could only control one of them on Wednesday night at Lakeside Field. The ‘Cats needed a win against last-place Wisconsin, a Rutgers win or draw against Maryland and a Michigan win or draw against Ohio State.
Neither the Scarlet Knights nor the Wolverines could not get it done, but Wildcats pulled out a 2-0 win over the Badgers to clinch a third-place Big Ten finish. Coach Tim Lenahan said he was happy with the way his team finished the season, even if the 'Cats didn't end up on top.
“In a league this tough, to finish one point behind first place is pretty impressive for this group,” he said. “I’m proud of the way they responded after starting 0-1-2 [in conference play].”
With the win, the ‘Cats finished the regular season 9-3-5 (4-1-3 in conference), and undefeated at home. On the other hand, the Badgers dropped to 3-11-3 (0-7-1 in conference).
Early on in the first half of the game, the Badgers struggled to establish any sort of offensive rhythm, while the Wildcats were able to pass at will on Wisconsin’s side of the field. Junior forward Joey Calistri eventually got the ‘Cats on the board first with help from senior midfielder Eric Weberman, putting Northwestern on top, 1-0, in the 11th minute.
The Badgers tightened up their defense and played with more aggression offensively as the half wore on, but they were unable to get anything by senior goalkeeper Tyler Miller. The senior made four saves in the first half and six total in his final regular season home game as a Wildcat. He finished his four-year regular season conference career with only three losses.
Calistri scored his second goal of the game five minutes in to the second half on a perfect cross right in front of the goal from Weberman, with help from freshman midfielder Sam Forsgren, to put Northwestern up 2-0. That goal all but closed the game out for the ‘Cats, who were content to sit back and play defense for the remainder of the game, safely slowing the pace of the game. Lenahan said that was all part of the plan, all while praising Wisconsin’s aggressive play.
“Once we got the second goal, we closed up shop,” Lenahan said. “But Wisconsin’s a good team, they outshot us. They’ll be heard from in this [upcoming conference] tournament.”
By virtue of the ‘Cats third place finish in the Big Ten, they will face the sixth seeded, yet number one ranked team in the country (averaged from the five national polls). The 'Cats will face the Indiana Hoosiers on Sunday in the first round of the conference tournament at Lakeside Field.
“We’ve got to enjoy this moment here, because any Big Ten win is a special win,” Lenahan said. “But then we’ve got to get ready for the team that’s probably been the best in the country. No other league in the country has the number one team that finishes sixth.”
Lenahan said he thinks a win on Sunday would wrap up at least an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament, but that he’s not letting himself get too confident about any game as he moves forward.
“I’m never confident,” he said. “I’m nervous about every team, and that’s what makes you prepare. I’m confident in the players, but we will prepare for a very, very good Indiana team.”