Aug. 25, 2005
The stage was set last season for Northwestern Men's Soccer to have a breakout year. After all, their 2003 campaign was the first since 1988 that the `Cats had finished .500 or better, they were returning 10 of 11 starters and had brought in a gritty recruiting class that was primed to contribute.
The result? A record-setting season that earned Northwestern a spot among the top men's soccer programs in the nation. NU finished as high as 20th in some national polls, the best an NU men's soccer program had ever been ranked, and head coach Tim Lenahan expects the team to be even more successful in '05. With 22 letter-winners and all 11 starters returning, the Purple and White undoubtedly have the talent and experience to compete with the nation's best.
"I think that having expectations is a good thing. Obviously, we return everyone so the bar is quite high. From another perspective, this will be the first time that other teams will look at us a little differently. Having a veteran group should help us when dealing with those new challenges, Lenahan said."
A strong veteran presence is arguably the most significant factor in the team's recent success. The `Cats had one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in all of college soccer just three years ago. But with a roster boasting 10 seniors and nine juniors, leadership is now one of the team's many strong suits.
One of those leaders is third year forward Gerardo Alvarez. Alvarez could potentially become NU's career leader in goals, assists and points by the end of his only his junior season. Alvarez has started every game of his collegiate career and is a big reason why the Wildcat offense has become a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
"Gerardo is our go-to guy and has been since the day he set foot on this campus," Lenahan said. "He is certainly a future professional player and loves the challenge of the big game. Our success really depends on his continued growth as a player. He is the only junior to be captain, so now he is playing with that responsibility as well."
There are also a number of other upperclassman who could potentially make their respective marks on the NU record book by the end of the season. Seniors Eric Brin, Kevin Earnest, Brad Napper and Brad North are all within striking distance of moving into the top-10 on the NU career points list, with Napper and North only eight and six points shy, respectively. North also needs only eight goals to move into a tie for first place on NU's career goals list.
The offense was also given a boost with the addition of freshman midfielder David Roth. In his first collegiate season, all Roth did was tie the Big Ten and set the Northwestern single-season assist record with 14. Roth was named second-team freshman all-America by Collegesoccernews.com, and was honored as a member of the Big Ten All-Freshman team.
While NU boasted the 11th best offense in the nation last season, it was the defense that deserved much of the credit for the Wildcats' stellar season. The `Cats gave up only 27 goals last season, and ranked second in the Big Ten with 1.13 goals against per game. Never satisfied, one of the team's goals heading into the 2005 season is to hold opposing teams under one goal per game. With seniors Sammy Semwangu, Adam Sirois and Jaro Pylypczak, who has started all 63 matches of his collegiate career, NU will brandish a seasoned, stingy defense. Add junior goalkeeper Justin Pines, whose four shutouts rank 10th in the NU record books, and the Purple and White have a very legitimate chance of achieving their goal.
The `Cats owned the second-best winning percentage in the Big Ten last year, en-route to their first-ever Big Ten Championship and NCAA Tournament appearances. They also delivered perennial powerhouse Indiana its first regular season conference loss in nine years. Lenahan knows his team can play with and beat anyone in college soccer. He knows his team can have an even more successful run this year, but they need to work game by game, focusing on each conference foe.
"Obviously when the two-time defending national champion resides in your conference you have to start there. The difference now is the conference only begins with Indiana. Last year, the Big Ten ranked No. 1 in overall RPI and No. 1 in NCAA Tournament teams. All the teams have a legitimate shot to win the Big Ten and capture an NCAA bid. I hope we are still standing after the battles," Lenahan said.