Oct. 15, 2008
By Larry Watts
As a high school junior in 2005, Matt Eliason was just another number attending Tim Lenahan's summer soccer camp at Northwestern University. No one noticed.
The Lombard. Ill. native returned the following summer. This time he did manage to raise a blip on the radar screen, but even he admits it wasn't enough to draw heavy attention from the big-time soccer schools.
"I had my eyes on some good programs, which were big on academics, and Northwestern was one of them," Eliason says. "Coach Lenahan took down my name and said he'd keep an eye on my development in the fall."
Also keeping Eliason out of the spotlight was the fact he hadn't played for a prestigious soccer club, like the Chicago Magic, or been part of the Olympic Development Program. And his Glenbard East High School squad had been solid, but never regarded as a state power.
"I honestly didn't remember him the first time he came to our camp," Lenahan admits. "Matt caught our attention a little the second year, but it wasn't something that knocked us off our feet. That shows you how smart I am."
But true to his word, the Northwestern head coach did keep tabs on Eliason's progress and attended a couple of Glenbard East matches.
"We finally saw he had that little bit extra," Lenahan says. "We got lucky, it took us a long time before we finally offered."
Not only did Eliason earn a partial scholarship, but he also stepped right into the starting lineup on opening day and has quickly established himself as one of the premier players in the Big Ten. As a freshman, the 5-foot-11 midfielder was second on the team in goals (5) and points (19).
And through the Wildcats' 10-0-2 start (3-0 Big Ten) this season, Eliason has already found the back of the net 11 times, which ties Michigan State's Doug DeMartin for tops in the conference and is only one behind the national leader. The 11 goals are sixth best in Northwestern history and he has already posted six game-winning goals this year.
"What happened my freshman year was beyond my expectations," says Eliason, who was named to all-tournament teams following the Lakeside Classic and adidas/Baymont Inn Invitational. "I just came here with the idea of trying to gain some minutes. I had a good preseason and wound up starting every game."
If his freshman season was "beyond expectations," there is simply no way to describe the start to his sophomore campaign, where he has already scored eight more goals than his closest teammate. Coupled with a defense that has already tied the school record with nine shutouts, the Wildcats have climbed to a No. 2 ranking by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, the highest ranking in the school history.
"He's a natural goal scorer, the things he does you can't coach," Lenahan says. "He looks a little awkward when running, a bit on the pigeon-toed side, but he gets himself in good situations and can kick the ball well and cleanly with either foot."
"Give all the credit to my teammates," Eliason says about his blazing start to 2008. "They have been giving me some great crosses and feeds. I just wanted to score in double digits this year.
"The team chemistry we have is just contagious and it's great to be part of this family. We do everything together, on and off the field. But we still have a lot of work to do if we want to achieve our first goal, and that's win our first Big Ten title."
Known for fielding teams with offensive balance, Lenahan doesn't seem too concerned at this time about one player carrying most of the offensive burden.
"The way I see it, we have a good scorer right now and we've been playing very good defense," he says. "It's just a matter of time before some of the other players start to break out, and when that happens it will take us to a new level and we'll really be dangerous."
After failing to win a Big Ten regular season match in his first three years, Lenahan has now led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in three of the past four seasons. The Wildcats bowed to Ohio State 1-0 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals last year and then watched the Big Ten champs advance to the NCAA Finals after suffering a first-round exit themselves.
"We're all upset at how quickly our season ended last year, but right now, the Big Ten title is our No. 1 focus. That never has been done here before," Eliason says. "Every Big Ten match is a struggle, it's the best soccer in the country. We just can't afford to lose that focus."
"We haven't done anything until we win that (Big Ten) title, that's the reason every player is here," Lenahan says. "If we win the Big Ten, then we get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. When we see our name go up on that (NCAA) board, then it's time to reset our goals.
"To be No. 2 in the nation right now, all that means is we haven't lost. We've taken the field 12 times and nobody has been better on the scoreboard.
"The seniors on this team cut their teeth on playing in the NCAA quarterfinals in front of 9,000 fans, so they know what it is like. We know who we are and who we aren't. We'll just keep focusing on being the best Northwestern team we can be."