Aug. 29, 2007

Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan has transformed the Wildcat men's soccer program into a winner. No one can argue that.

In the last three seasons, the Wildcats have made the NCAA Tournament twice, coming within one win of the NCAA College Cup last year in the most memorable postseason the program has witnessed.

Over the past four seasons, the Wildcats have amassed 45 victories, including 15- and 14-win seasons in 2004 and 2006, and are 4-2 in NCAA play. This year Northwestern wants to maintain that level of success and further prove to the nation that the 'Cats are--and will be--a team to be reckoned with, as they begin the season ranked 20th in the College Soccer News national poll.

"I think we now have an expectation of having success every year," Lenahan said. "In the past we tried to out-emotion and out-work other programs along with a surprise element to achieve success. I believe that now, even though emotion and work ethic will continue to be key components of our success, we have a program in place where every player understands the program's goals and potential."

But even after all the wins and postseason success, the Wildcats still long for a Big Ten Championship.

"We know that it is important for us this year to have a good Big Ten campaign," Lenahan said. "Our seniors were able to get a glimpse of that success in 2004 when we made the Big Ten Championship game and hope to return to that level this year. That being said, we still have won more overall games (38) over the past three years than any other Big Ten program except for Indiana."

But it won't be easy. The Big Ten is arguably one of the strongest conferences in the country. With Indiana, Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and now Northwestern in the mix every year, every team is challenging for an NCAA berth each season. 

"Talking about the Big Ten you always have to start with Indiana, arguably the most successful program in college soccer today," added Lenahan. "What is unique about the Big Ten is that there is so much parity from top to bottom that every team believes it can win the league. I think it is very rare in any other sport or league where every team believes it is capable of winning a championship. Every team starts the season with a legitimate belief that its program can win the Big Ten Championship."



Leading the way for the Wildcats this season will be senior David Roth, who was recently named to the 2007 Hermann Trophy watch list, honoring the top player in intercollegiate soccer. Roth, a first-team All-Big Ten pick in 2006, led the Wildcats with 21 points on eight goals and five assists last year and was named to Soccer America's College MVP team.

"Dave is just a great energy source for the program," Lenahan said. "He leads the nation in high-fives and slow claps to get things going and just loves to play soccer and be around his teammates. That enthusiasm is infectious for the rest of us. Dave's soccer has really developed from strictly a one vs. one guy to now a guy who really knows how to manage and manipulate the game. When his career is over, he will go down as one of the most productive flank players in Big Ten history."

Complementing Roth in the midfield is redshirt sophomore Carl Pett, who led the team with nine assists last year and was named to the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team and was a second-team All-Conference pick.

But after Roth, no returning Wildcat scored more than two goals last season. A cause for concern for some teams, but Lenahan has plenty of talented youngsters waiting their turn to show what they can do.

"Obviously, we are not going to ignore the loss of such great players in Brad North (9g) and Gerardo Alvarez (4g, 3a)," Lenahan said. "They really have been our go-to guys for four years, scoring just about every big goal during that time. We really need to adopt a team mentality to goal scoring with everyone being responsible for success on the attacking side.

"I think you saw some of that in the spring with seven different players scoring goals. Eamon O'Neill, Kevin Valenta, Clark Kiesling, Chris Kammo, Pett, Geoff Fallon, Tyler Voigt and perhaps a freshman or two will all have an opportunity to contribute."

But unlike a year ago at this time when the strength of the team was on attack, NU begins the year with loads of experience, speed and talent in the backfield and goalkeeper positions. Northwestern recorded eight shutouts last year and will rely on its defense to take the pressure off some of the younger players up top.  

"Last year we entered the season with very little experience in the back and those guys did a great job adjusting to playing full-time for the first time," said Lenahan. "Drew Ratner and Matt Witt played all summer with the Chicago Fire Premiere in the PDL as the starting center backs and will bring experience to the central defense. Mark Blades and Pat Coleman were our book end freshmen last year who blossomed as the season went on and played like veterans come NCAA time. Brian Usinger gives us a great ability to get out of pressure with his ability to distribute."

The goalkeeper position is just as deep and talented. Will Briley, who made 49 saves in 16 games last year, is the favorite to win the job, but will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Misha Rosenthal.

"There should be great competition at goalkeeper this year with Briley and Rosenthal, who redshirted last year, battling for the starting position. Freshman Drew Kotler comes in as a very highly rated youth player to give us great depth at that position."

Each year the Wildcats rely on a freshman or two to step up and contribute right away. That is the case once again in 2007 as College Soccer News ranked this incoming class 21st in the nation for the second-straight year--one of only two Big Ten teams ranked in the top 35.

"We have one of the most decorated incoming classes to date with four players with national team experience and three ESP players," Lenahan said. "Piero Belizzi joined us in the spring and made an immediate impact by scoring four goals. Cody Stanley, Lucas Swertloff and Kotler all were adidas ESP players, which is reserved for the top 120 players in the country. Matt Eliason could be the real sleeper of this class as he seems to improve each time we see him. As a goal scorer he could make an immediate impact. Pat Gibson, Jack Hillgard and Jason Drews all bring great success from the youth and high school level and will add great depth to our roster."