Aug. 22, 2006

The 2006 edition of Northwestern men's soccer has all the ingredients for a very successful season on paper. The Wildcats return a wealth offensively, 21 letterwinners, seven starters and a trio of talented goalkeepers that can help the Wildcats go toe-to-toe with any team in the country.

Looking back for a moment, sixth-year head coach Tim Lenahan and the Wildcats enjoyed the best season in program history two years ago, and in doing so, set the bar high for last season. Northwestern was 15-6-2 in 2004, upset the defending and eventual national champion Indiana Hoosiers in the process and earned the program's first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.

But last season, the injury bug hit the Wildcats hard, losing top players such as all-Big Ten performer Gerardo Alvarez for much of the season in addition to starting goalkeeper Justin Pines and midfielder Will Nicholas. Despite all that and despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the country, Lenahan still led his Wildcats to a 9-7-2 overall mark--but missing out on the big dance.

Now this season, the Wildcats are back with a healthy contingent of offense, defense and athleticism to go along with a talented incoming class to help Northwestern make a serious run at the Big Ten championship. 

"Despite our record last season, we were within a win or two of making the NCAA Tournament," Lenahan said. "We need to keep everything in perspective in that 2005 was our second winning season ever (since Big Ten play began in 1991) and our second-best season ever--playing a very difficult schedule. This is just four years from a program that went 35 games without a win in 2000-01. We lost our starting goalie (Pines), starting center midfielder (Nicholas) and had the Big Ten's leading scorer (Alvarez) playing injured all year. That being said, I think our team is very hungry to get back among the nation's elite programs. I think you will see a more disciplined, determined and focused team this season."

The Wildcats return a plethora of firepower offensively. A healthy Alvarez is a threat anywhere on the field and should take much attention off Brad North and David Roth, allowing for more scoring opportunities all around. Despite missing a majority of the season with an injury, Alvarez still finished second on the team with three goals and five assists. The 2003 Big Ten Freshman of the Year will be looking to regain the form he showed during this first two seasons.

"Gerardo's injury last year kept him from being the player he is and it definitely had an effect on Brad North and Dave Roth's productivity," Lenahan said. "After off-season surgery, we are hoping to have the "G" of old. I think this, with both Brad and Dave's game maturing, will make us a very dangerous offensive team. Dave is one of the best assist guys in the country and Brad is big central striker that will move among NU's all-time leading goal scorers before the year is over. Add into that mix freshman Eamon O'Neill, Dan Chille, who is arguably the best one vs. one player in the Big Ten and the return of Will Nicholas, and you have some guys who can score some goals."

Having too much of a good thing can sometimes work against you. But in Lenahan's case, having four capable goalkeepers is certainly a good problem to have for any coach. After Pines went down early last season, Lenahan was forced to play both red-shirt freshman Will Briley, an eventual Big Ten All-Freshman team selection, and true-freshman Misha Rosenthal. As if two wasn't competition enough last year, with Pines now thrown back into the mix, the 'Cats figure to have some intense and healthy competition between the pipes all season long.

Just who will win the starting job is the million-dollar question entering preseason camp.

"We have four goalkeepers competing for the position so I am interested to see how the keepers have grown over last year," added Lenahan. "Will Briley was the most consistent for us in the spring, Misha Rosenthal the most capable of making the spectacular save and Justin Pines the most experienced having started every game his sophomore year in 2004. Rich Nassif brings a tremendous amount of energy and organization to the position. I am hoping that one keeper separates himself during the preseason, but if we have to play several to get it done, that will work as well."

In addition to his veteran expectations, Lenahan went out and inked the 21st best recruiting class in the country--and the second-best in the Big Ten--according to

Eamon O'Neill and Mark Blades, both highly recruited NSCAA high school all-Americans, are part of a very talented six-member incoming class. Blades, an Ohio native who led his high school to two state championships, was named the 2005 Ohio Player of the Year. O'Neill hails from Wilmington, Del. where he took Salesianum High School to three state championships and was named the Delaware Player of the Year in recognition of his outstanding efforts. Also coming on board is Pat Coleman, a talented all-state defender out of from Ohio, forward Kevin Valenta, a first-team all-state forward out of St. Louis and all-state defender Drew Pavlovich out Kansas. The sixth member is defender Daniel Pydo, an Illinois native who transfers in from Georgetown this fall and figures to add valuable experience to a young back line.

"Our freshmen class is one of our most talented to date," Lenahan said. "As mentioned, Eamon O'Neill comes to us as a scorer that brings a tremendous amount of energy and competitiveness that should make an impact on the Big Ten. Mark Blades is a very steady player in midfield or defense while Pat Coleman is a very athletic central defender who will be an excellent player for us and hopefully can help us right away. Kevin Valenta and Drew Pavlovich bring a high soccer IQ and soccer savvy to our team and should be good players in the not-to-distant future. Lastly, Dan Pydo brings us the one thing our team is missing: experience on the defensive side of the ball. We are hoping that Dan's leadership and experience will help us to replace our 10 seniors who graduated last year.

"I think a big key to our season is the growth of our sophomore and junior class. Tyler Voigt, Carl Pett, Chris Kammo and Geoff Fallon all had great springs and I am hopeful they can continue that trend. Drew Ratner, Matt Witt and Brian Usinger have been waiting for their chance to lead our defense and they will certainly get their chance this year. It is great to have veteran players as well to add depth to the team and we certainly have that in John Carlstedt, Kyle Moore, Jeff Mills and Clark Kiesling. All are excellent leaders off the field and have a great chance to make an impact. All in all, there is a lot of optimism heading into the year."