Northwestern sophomore forward Justin Weiss dribbles the ball during a game against Indiana. Leading the Big Ten in goals this year, Weiss has helped keep the 'Cats during a tumultuous season. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Boring. If asked to give a description of soccer, that’s the term many here in the US would use. Whether it comes from a lack of scoring, matchups that seem one sided, or a general unfamiliarity with the sport, there are a variety of reasons why. Luckily, at Northwestern, the soccer team is anything but boring.

If you’re watching a Northwestern men’s soccer (6-8-2, 3-5 B1G) game, the odds are it’ll be close. Seven of the Wildcats’ sixteen matches this season have been within one goal, and only one match has fallen outside a differential of two. What’s more, is that on the season Northwestern has a goal margin of -0.07, meaning that on average, Northwestern scores just 0.07 less goals than its opponents each match. In comparison, top ranked Penn State scores 0.647 more goals than its opponent each match, highlighting the tight scoring nature of a Wildcats’ soccer game.

Rather than dealing in the cheap thrills of blowouts, Northwestern soccer provides a more sophisticated kind of entertainment in the form of a competitive match that will demand your attention up to the final whistle. While the success of the team is undoubtedly a group effort, there have been standout players this season that have made this team especially fun to watch. First, let’s take a look at the ’Cats on the scoreboard.

No Offense, But...

At the helm of the Northwestern offense is sophomore forward Justin Weiss who has lit up the Big Ten this season. With 40 shot attempts (and 16 on goal), Weiss sits at third in the conference for shots. Moreover, it’s worth noting he makes up a third of the Wildcats' 117 shots on the season.

These shots aren’t coming up empty either. Weiss is tied for first in the Big Ten with eight goals this year. Adding to the excitement are his two game winning goals – meaning he put the ’Cats over the top – in games against DePaul (7-7-3, 3-4-3 Big East) and Ohio State (6-9-1, 2-6 B1G).

These two stats show his clutch ability as a player, and the much needed role he plays on this team. He leads the Wildcats in all categories mentioned. Needless to say, watching ’Cats soccer means watching Justin Weiss lead the offensive front. As a sophomore, he still has another two seasons to grow and develop as a player. The sky’s the limit for what he can accomplish moving forward.

If Justin Weiss could be considered the Karl Malone of the offense, the John Stockton would be junior midfielder Vicente Castro. Notching an impressive two goals himself this season, where he truly shines is setting up others, toting seven assists on the year; currently tied for first in the Big Ten. While he can pass like Stockton, his dribbling is more resemblant of Kyrie Irving, as he dribbles around and cuts through opposing defenses to then find the open man. Watch him make Wisconsin defenders look silly on this play here:

What’s more impressive, however, is the fact that Castro is responsible for 47.3% of Northwestern’s goals on the season; on almost half of the goals scored by the ’Cats this season, he has finished or helped set up. To say that Castro plays an important role on the Northwestern offense is an understatement. Moving into the Big Ten tournament, his play will be crucial for the success of the Wildcats.

Picket Defense

From “The Wizard of Oz” Ozzie Smith, legendary MLB shortstop, or the Legion of Boom, the name given to the cohort of hard hitting Seattle Seahawks defensive backs in the mid 2010s, strong defense commands respect in any sport. Soccer is no different, with top class goalies gaining international recognition amongst fans. Northwestern is lucky to have their own star goalie, who has made his mark on this season.

If we’re continuing the earlier trend of 90’s NBA references, there would be no better comparison to Dennis Rodman than graduate goalkeeper Miha Miskovic. His defensive tenacity and fearlessness in the box have been critical for Northwestern this season to stay in tightly contested matches.

His best games are the teams best games, as his performances with the most saves have resulted in some of the ’Cats most impressive wins of the season. In the Wildcats best offensive game of the year – a 4-1 win over Kansas City (3-7-3, 2-2-1 Summit League) – he notched seven saves, and in arguably their most crucial win of the season, a shutout against Ohio State, he shined with six. Some other notable statistics include his position of fifth in the Big Ten in number of shutouts and seventh in the Big Ten in saves per game, 4 and 3.08, respectively.

What these statistics don’t show, however, is how enjoyable it is watching him play. Miskovic has a collection of theatrical saves where he either dives, jumps for contested balls, or punches out a ball just in time, that would look more at home on Broadway. It’s his statistics, as well as the energy and level of confidence, that he helps bring to the team that has made Miskovic spectacular in his final season for the Wildcats.

When taking a comprehensive look at Northwestern soccer, it can’t be helped to mention the Wildcats’ offensive woes this season. They sit third to last in the Big Ten in the number of goals scored this season, and rank dead last in total number of shots.

This isn’t necessarily bad, however, just reflective of the highly defensive style of play that Northwestern has been forced into for numerous games this season. Northwestern has consistently failed to maintain meaningful possessions when on offense, leading to a lack of production. They are commonly forced on the defensive both early and often, which ultimately results in far less offensive opportunities as compared to their Big Ten counterparts.

For reference, Indiana (12-4-1, 5-3 B1G) sits atop the conference with 32 goals this season, whereas Northwestern boasts a modest 19. A statistic even more striking is just how few shots these 19 goals have been scored on. Ohio State has scored 16 goals on the year, putting up 201 shots in the process. Northwestern has taken only 124. The next closest team in the Big Ten is Michigan State (6-8-2, 2-4-2 B1G) who has taken 188 – 64 more than the 'Cats – yet the Spartans have only scored one more goal. This statistic is emblematic of the struggles the Wildcats have faced this season, yet also the will the team possesses to pull through.

Postseason, and Beyond

Even though they don’t have one of the better records in the conference, the Wildcats still have hope to make something greater out of a year that has seen varied levels of success. Northwestern has clinched their berth into the Big Ten tournament where they hope to make a deep run. In head coach Russell Payne’s first postseason with the team, it’ll be especially interesting to see how he can guide them through the forthcoming high stakes play.

As a single elimination tournament, upsets are liable to happen. A 2017 Wisconsin team won the whole thing as a 5 seed, upsetting top seeded Michigan 4-0 in the semifinals. The ’Cats, after beating Michigan State in their final game of the season, are currently sitting at No. 7 in the tournament, and will have their chance to shock the world starting Sunday, when they travel to play No. 2 Maryland (12-3-1, 5-2-1 B1G) at College Park.

It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Wildcats this season, but they’ve kept courage to brave the winds and have found themselves still with the chance to make their mark in the Big Ten tournament. There’s no telling what’s in store for this team moving forwards, but if you choose to tune in, prepare for a hard fought match that’ll keep your attention through the very end. No boredom whatsoever.