Northwestern graduate goaltender Miha Miskovic lays out for the save during a 2021 game in Ryan Fieldhouse. Northwestern men's soccer picked up two wins last week, one of them on the shoulders of Miskovic's terrific effort in net. Photos by Maren Kranking / North by Northwestern

Northwestern men’s soccer (4-5-2, 1-3 B1G) is one of the more interesting teams to watch on campus this season. With new head coach Russell Payne at the helm and an aging senior core that seems to bring back the old days of strong defensive play, the team has struggled this season, going four games without a win and struggling in Big Ten play. As they headed into a home stand at Martin Stadium last week, the team was hoping to gain some momentum and punch themselves back into the win column.

The team first snapped their four game losing streak with a solid 2-0 win against DePaul (5-4, 1-1 Big East) last Wednesday night. Goals from graduate defender Spencer Farina (‘15) and sophomore forward Justin Weiss (‘62) helped push the ‘Cats over the top, while junior defender Deng Deng Kur played a key role in maintaining the defensive line to keep the shutout.

The ’Cats struck early in the first half, scoring off a Vicente Castro free kick while Farina finished the job with a magnificent header from the left side of the box in the 15th minute.

NU got two more shots off in the half, but neither were on target. This is due to a DePaul defense that largely prevented the ball from entering their box, forcing NU possession to be had on the outside of the pitch, minimizing any potential shot attempts.

The ‘Cats handled the ball excellently, dominating possession throughout the first half, making smart choices that kept DePaul from getting much going on their own offense. In addition to scoring, Farina also played a key role maintaining this possession, effectively passing the ball around the field to keep momentum in favor of NU.

The second half started with DePaul looking strong on offense, pushing it deep into ’Cats territory early, but any momentum they may have had was quickly lost after Weiss netted his goal for NU in the 62nd minute. Castro recorded his second assist of the night as Weiss turned a pass at the top of the box into a precise left footed shot.

While failing to make any strong offensive attacks following, the ‘Cats controlled the ball for the majority of the second half and kept things just as they wanted: uneventful.

The key to the defense tonight was Deng Deng Kur, who shone brilliantly on the back line. When faced with pressure, Kur consistently made smart passes that both alleviated the DePaul attack and set up the NU offense. Kur was integral in defusing several situations which could have blown up in the ‘Cats face without his leadership. Farina was also excellent, blocking a shot in the first half in addition to his goal while also making several smart passes when back field. Without either of these players it's very likely the trajectory of the game could have changed.

Northwestern junior defender Deng Deng Kur aims for a clear during a 2021 game at Ryan Fieldhouse. Kur's contributions on the defensive scheme are crucial to the Wildcats' success down the stretch.

Despite the win, the ‘Cats did have improvements to be made. While on offense, NU struggled to cross the ball into the middle of the field, and had to play the majority of the game near the sidelines. This led to only four shots on goal, which is below the Big Ten average of 4.58 per game. Currently, Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in shots on goal per game with an average of 3.58. While it’s worth noting that this was the most goals Northwestern has scored all season, it would be misguided to think that they can sustain this level of offensive production without more shots.

There were also two yellow cards in the second half, which set DePaul up for lengthy offensive possessions. Despite the entertaining theatrics which caused these fouls, the ’Cats should hope to eliminate such lapses as they resume Big Ten play.

All in all, it was a solid win for the ’Cats who desperately needed it. The defense was strong as ever, though the question marks on offense remained, as they headed back into Big Ten play with a game against Ohio State (4-5-1, 0-2 B1G) Sunday afternoon.

Instead of facing difficulty on offense, however, the ’Cats won the game with their strong defensive play, winning the game 1-0. In a tightly contested match, a goal from sophomore forward Justin Weiss (‘86) at the very end brought the ’Cats to victory. Graduate goalkeeper Miha Miskovic also shone, recording six saves on the day.

The first half saw offensive opportunities for both teams, however possession was largely dominated by Ohio State. The Buckeyes were able to consistently maneuver the ball and maintain lengthy possessions deep inside of Northwestern territory. Several of these ended in shot attempts, with OSU successfully recording six in the first half. The Wildcats, however, managed to stay strong in the box and didn’t let anything into the goal.

Northwestern managed to get the ball on Ohio State’s side of the field several times in the first half, but failed to have much meaningful time spent there. The ’Cats were only able to get one shot off in the half due to a Buckeye defense that excelled in taking back possession of the ball. There were several attempts to cross the ball into the center or pass it by a defender, but the Ohio State back line was unwavering and hardly let anything past.

The second half started chippy and stayed that way for much of the remainder. It started when junior midfielder Castro went down in the box, with the ’Cats believing he was fouled. The ref, however, failed to make a call. The emotion stemming from this incident seemed to spread to both sides, as the first 20 minutes of the half saw a flurry of fouls from both teams.

Despite the contention, the Ohio State offense was firing on all cylinders, racking up 12 shot attempts in the second half. The one thing more impressive than the Buckeye offense, however, was the Wildcat goalie. Miha Miskovic made six total saves in the match, with four coming in the second half. Miskovic showed off his athleticism with several heroic saves in order to maintain a shutout.

The scariest play of the match came in the 73rd minute when Miskovic slid and collided with an Ohio State forward to stop a shot attempt. Though needing a minute to recollect himself afterwards, he finished the game strong, proving himself to be the foundation which the ’Cats were able to stand on.

In the final minutes of the game, the ’Cats launched an all out attack, leaving only one defender backfield in a last ditch effort to score. These efforts paid off as Weiss netted a beautiful goal, coming off a pass from senior forward Jose Del Valle.

In the four minutes that followed Ohio State was unable to score and the ’Cats walked off with a victory.

The role of Miskovic cannot be overstated in this game. His six saves in this match are almost double the Big Ten average of 3.15. It’s worth noting that several of these were highly contentious in a crowded goal box. A single slip up would have fundamentally changed the course of this match. When the times were tough, however, Miskovic proved to be tougher.

On a less exciting note, Northwestern has to work on sustaining possession in enemy territory. The ’Cats were forced into playing defense for much of the game, and for the first 70 minutes were only able to put two shots up. Allowing 12 shots in a half, let alone 18 in total for the match, is not a recipe for success.

Despite any shortcomings, Northwestern has the right to celebrate after getting its first Big Ten win of the season, with head coach Russel Payne earning the first Big Ten win of his career. It would be remiss, however, to not think that luck was on the ’Cats side for this one.