Northwestern 2009 Season Outlook

Aug. 27, 2009

Northwestern continued to establish itself as one of the elite men’s soccer programs in the country in 2008, earning a school-best No. 2 national ranking and advancing to the NCAA quarterfinal round for the second time in two years. With six starters – including three All-Big Ten performers – and 15 letterwinners overall returning for 2009, the Wildcats have their sights set on climbing to the top of the Big Ten standings.

“Our goal still remains to win the Big Ten Championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament,” Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan said. “If you win the Big Ten, you qualify for the NCAA tournament and there we know that anything is possible – including a trip to the College Cup. The Big Ten is such a tough conference that we know those battles will prepare us for the NCAA tournament.”

In order to make a run to the top of the conference standings, the Wildcats must be able to replace five graduated seniors who finished their careers as the winningest class in school history. However, Northwestern appears to have plenty of firepower returning to make a run at the Big Ten title.

“Your team’s success goes hand-in-hand with the senior class and one of our strengths is that each year we have a number of seniors getting ready to play their last season,” said Lenahan. “This group has a chance to play in four straight NCAA Tournaments – something nothing no one else has ever done here.”

Headlining the list of senior returners is defender Mark Blades. A third-team NSCAA All-American and second-team All-Big Ten pick a year ago, Blades guided NU to a school-record 13 shutouts as the squad ranked first in the Big Ten and sixth nationally with a 0.55 goals-against average. He also contributed three goals on the offensive end and is the lone Big Ten representative on this season’s Hermann Trophy Watch List.

“When we talk about leadership on this team, we start with Mark Blades,” Lenahan said. “His drive and passion for success will be one of the key components of what pushes this team for success.”

Northwestern also welcomes back its starter between the pipes in goalkeeper Misha Rosenthal. The fifth-year senior posted a miniscule 0.48 goals-against average that was the fourth-best mark in the nation last season and was in goal each time the Wildcats blanked an opponent. For his efforts, Rosenthal was named a second-team All-Big Ten selection.

Senior Pat Coleman and juniors Cody Stanley and Jack Hillgard also return as defensive starters for the ’Cats, headlining a solid group that has led the conference in goals-against average each of the past two seasons.

“We always want to be among the leaders defensively,” Lenahan said. “They say defense wins championships, but I believe it is more that players who are willing to defend win championships. There is unselfish nature to defending that transfers throughout the team and makes you unselfish in attack. That being said, returning our core defensive unit should make us tough to score against this season.”

Offensively, the Wildcats welcome back a number of individuals who are capable of finding the back of the net. The list starts with junior forward Matt Eliason who notched team bests of 12 goals and 25 points in 2008 en route to being named a first-team All-Big Ten honoree.

“Matt has shown tremendous growth as a player since we first saw him five years ago at one of our camps,” said Lenahan. “He is a natural goal-scorer and has just gotten better and better since that time. That said, we really hope to have more of a shared approach to our goal scoring.” 

Oliver Kupe burst onto the scene late in his freshman season last year, displaying his great size and athleticism. In a second-round NCAA tournament win over Notre Dame, Kupe scored a pair of second-half goals to help the Wildcats advance on with a win over the Fighting Irish.

Eamon O’Neill returns to Northwestern for his senior season up front, while junior Kevin Valenta and Peter O’Neill, a Big Ten All-Freshman Team pick a year ago, are also back in the fold. Piero Bellizzi, the 2007 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, also returns for his junior campaign.

In addition to their talented returning group, the Wildcats also welcome yet another solid recruiting class which includes a number of individuals who could step in and contribute right away.

Kyle Schickel and Chris Ritter were really impressive in both club soccer and when they attended camp this summer,” Lenahan said. “Both have a chance to make an impact. As with any freshmen, how quickly they make the transition from club/high school to college player is most important. This is a year where we will need freshmen to make an impact so there are opportunities for all the new players to contribute. Jarrett Baughman won a national championship with his Carmel team and Tim Zimmer was the Illinois player of the year. Michael Wallbridge and Nick Gendron have great athleticism to play at this level. Chris Tombridge has the makings of a big-time goalkeeper and Alex Male is a consistent goal scorer.”

As always, Northwestern will need to contend with a challenging conference slate filled with a number of the nation’s top programs. Lenahan knows that year in and year out, playing in the Big Ten will prepare his squad for the postseason.

“I say this every year, but I believe that Big Ten Men's Soccer is the only conference of any sport in the country where every team believes they have a legitimate chance to win a championship and they are right,” Lenahan said. “Indiana, as always, will be the favorite but the other six teams all have the chance to win it. Over the last two years, Michigan State and Ohio State have proven that theory correct, as over the last four years there have been four different champions. From top to bottom, it's definitely the toughest conference in the country.”