The last time Northwestern men’s soccer (2-7-1, 8th in B1G) played Indiana (7-1, 1st in B1G), they eked out one of the grittiest and most important wins in recent program history, a 1-0 victory that gave them their first win over the Hoosiers in nearly a decade. It was a critical win for the Wildcats, who improved to 2-1 on the season and looked to make a splash on the Big Ten scene, causing trouble for the top contenders. Unfortunately, it was never meant to be: it was Northwestern’s last win this season.
The Wildcats’ season officially came to a close Saturday night, with a 3-0 loss to Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Northwestern, playing as the eighth and last-place seed in the tournament, could not replicate the magic captured that February day at Ryan Fieldhouse.
Indiana was led in their effort by Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and leading scorer Victor Bezerra. The sophomore forward scored two goals to lead the Hoosiers over the ’Cats, including a fantastic penalty kick to open the scoring for the Hoosiers.
As the saying goes, “you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.” For Northwestern, this was certainly the case Saturday night, as they recorded no shots on goal and only two in the Indiana zone. You can’t score if you can’t get shots off, and against a potent offense like Indiana’s, the ’Cats were doomed from the start. The Hoosiers recorded eight shots on goal on a total 16 taken, spelling disaster for Northwestern. Even if the ’Cats had recorded a shot on net, they would have had to beat Indiana sophomore keeper Roman Celentano, the 2020-21 Big Ten Goalie of the Year.
Despite the stats, the game was closer than one would believe early on. The ’Cats looked lively in the first five minutes and even had a quality chance for top striker Ugo Achara Jr. The sophomore forward, who was named first-team All Big Ten earlier in the week, just missed a tap in opportunity early. Indiana, however, quickly drew first blood after Northwestern senior defenseman Garrett Operman tripped up a Hoosier in the box, allowing Bezerra to blow the penalty kick right past graduate goaltender Ethan Bandré.
Rain continued to pour throughout the first half, and Indiana seemed to be right in their element, dictating the pace of the game and seeming to pass the ball around Northwestern defenders effortlessly. Despite the efforts of Achara and sophomore midfielder Deng Deng Kur, Indiana largely kept the ball in their attacking end for most of the first half, firing away chance after chance and blocking any pass across midfield. When Northwestern did get chances, they were often met by a wall of Indiana defenders, failing to get into the box.
The Hoosiers finally capitalized on their terrific passing play in the 42nd minute, when sophomore forward Ryan Wittenbrink fired a shot, found a bad rebound given up by Bandré, and fired it right into the net. At halftime, the Hoosiers were leading Northwestern 2-0.
The second half was even worse for Northwestern, allowing a whopping 11 shots towards the net and recording just one of their own. The ball seemed to never leave their defensive end, and despite Bandré making two saves on Indiana shots, it simply wasn’t his night, and he allowed another to Bezerra in the 73rd minute.
It would be the final action Bandré would see in his career with Northwestern, as he was subbed out for sophomore keeper Kevin Klausz in the 77th minute. Klausz would play well in his Big Ten Tournament debut, recording three saves and allowing no goals, but the damage was done: Northwestern lost the game 3-0, and their season was over.
This game, as any casual fan could tell you, is easy to break down: the ’Cats were simply outpassed and outzoned. Indiana dominated Northwestern in almost every major statistic, including shots on goal (16-2) and corner kicks (6-0). The ’Cats could not set up shop in their offensive zone, and critical mistakes by their goalkeeper – against one of the best offenses in the league, no less – would doom them in the critical stretch.
The 2021 season will be remembered for fantastic highs, depraving lows and storied goodbyes. It saw the breakout performances of midfielder Ugo Achara Jr (named to the Big Ten First Team and scored five goals over the course of the season to become the team’s leading scorer) and first-year midfielder Rom Brown, who started all 11 games and was named to the Big Ten All Freshman team.
Unfortunately, the season was also one of missed potential: after beginning the season 2-1, the ’Cats would go eight straight games without a win, and only scored four goals over this stretch. This includes the final five games of the season, in which the ’Cats scored just one goal.
What was most important this season, however, was the final sendoff for storied Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan, the all-time winningest coach in program history. Lenahan, who was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2011 and led the ’Cats to two regular season Big Ten titles, was a critical element of the team’s return to dominance during the 2000s, appearing in multiple NCAA tournaments. Lenahan, retiring with 155 career victories, will be remembered well for his ability to recruit and create powerful teams, as well as the resurgence of Northwestern soccer in the Big Ten.
If only he had gotten his storybook ending.