Jan. 23, 2007
by Kyle Adams
Northwestern Media Services
Historic. Memorable. Shocking. All words to describe the 2006 Northwestern men's soccer team's run to the NCAA Elite Eight.
But maybe it's more fitting to call it a tribute to a group of players who took a chance on a program that they recognized as college soccer's sleeping giant.
That's what 2006 was for the Wildcats, especially the seniors who joined Tim Lenahan and his program four years ago when NCAA tournament berths were nothing more than a fleeting dream for a young program.
Lenahan points to last season's (2005) 10 seniors as the first recruiting class of this new era of Northwestern soccer. Nevertheless, the 2006 class will hold a historic place in the school's soccer history.
"The group that graduated a year ago was the team that got us competitive," Lenahan said. "This is the group that helped us become great. In fact it was the confidence in the program of the 2005 class that helped recruit many of these players. Selling the possibility of being a great team someday to these guys and just them believing in you as a coach, that the vision you shared with them potentially would and did happen, was very important. It makes you feel good as a coach that those guys had faith in what we were all about and I think that they all leave feeling very, very good about their overall college soccer experience."
The 2006 Northwestern men's soccer team advanced further than any in program history. The Wildcats went 14-8 overall and lost in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament to eventual national champions UC Santa Barbara.
"It was great," Lenahan said. "It was exciting for the guys. From a coaching standpoint, it's great to see the joy of the guys, particularly winning that Sweet 16 game at home, the last soccer game on that field. That's a memory. Seeing the look on their faces coming off the field ... that's something I'll always remember."
"I also am happy for all the players and coaches who were a part of the Northwestern University throughout the last 25 years. It was their perseverance to keep the program going that made this season a possibility. The fact that so many alums were present throughout the run made it all the more special"
It wasn't an easy ride to national prominence, though. The Wildcats played only seven home games and faced a rugged Big Ten schedule as evidenced by their 2-4 conference record.
Still, after a 9-7-1 2005 campaign, Northwestern opened 2006 with two straight wins at home in the Lakeside Classic against Hofstra and Dayton. Building off the early success, the Wildcats went on a tear. After a setback against Santa Clara in the UC Irvine College Classic, the `Cats won five straight games.
"We weren't necessarily playing the best soccer, but we were finding a way to get results," Lenahan said.
Northwestern got contributions from emerging stars like David Roth and Eamon O'Neill as well as role players like Geoff Fallon during the early run. Roth had game winners against Dayton, Bradley and Drake to propel the Wildcats to their best start in school history.
"Dave really carried us in the beginning of the year," Lenahan said. "This was a new experience for Dave because he's been so good at being a support player."
He scored eight goals on the season and led the team with 21 points. He started 21-of-22 games this season en route to becoming the first Northwestern player to be named a first team All-American by Soccer America magazine.
The scrappiness and diverse contributions of the early season run culminated in the Big Ten opener against Ohio State at the Lakeside Athletic Complex.
The 3-1 win was the school's first over the Buckeyes in 13 years.
"We were ready to play," Lenahan said. "We had lost to them in the regular-season and in the Big Ten tournament the year before. We kind of circled that game on our calendar knowing it would be the first Big Ten game, knowing it would be at home, knowing that we would be ready to play that game against them. Sure enough we were. We were behind to start the game, but we never lost the fact that we were going to win that game."
The game also gave Northwestern and the rest of the Big Ten a look at the team's potential.
"That's the game when we were firing on all cylinders with the team that we thought we would have for the year," added Lenahan. "You could see that we were very, very good. That game and I think the three games in the NCAA tournament were the games that defined how good we could potentially be."
A week and a half later seniors Daniel Chille and Will Nicholas were injured, forcing the `Cats to adjust their lineup during the conference schedule.
Lenahan highlighted the play of Brian Usinger, who replaced Nicholas and Mark Blades, who took over Chille's role. Still, it wasn't a seamless transition.
"You don't just replace two players like that," Lenahan said. "You don't just put two guys in to plug where they are. It took us a little bit to find out what our team was going to be. You have to change a couple of things, and I think once we did that we found our way and played pretty good soccer."
Senior Jeff Mills moved into the left back position in light of the injuries and stepped up into a prominent role after being a role player for three years.
"We had those injuries halfway through the year and it forced us to move Mark Blades into Dan Chille's spot and Jeff Mills, who really had limited time his first three years, really came in and was absolutely superb, solid and steady at the left back," Lenahan said. "It was great that one of the really good guys on the team ends his career as a key player on a top eight team."
With a reshuffled lineup, the Wildcats fought toward the Big Ten tournament. Though they lost, 2-1 in overtime, against Penn State, the Wildcats rebounded with three-straight wins in the NCAA Tournament. It was only the second tournament appearance for the school.
A dominant 3-0 win at home against Cincinnati in the first round set the stage for the tournament run. Gerardo Alvarez, scoreless through the regular-season, scored his first two goals of the season in the win.
"Once he scored that first goal you knew the flood gates were going to open," Lenahan said. "Three of the four goals he scored in the NCAA tournament were absolutely spectacular. The diving header against Cincinnati, the bomb against Greensboro and the set piece against Santa Barbara were fantastic goals as well. I knew it was only a matter of time and that's what I told him. I said, `Somebody is going to be sorry ... somebody's going to feel the pain of you breaking out.' I didn't know when it was going to happen, but we knew that that would happen."
After the win over Cincinnati, the Wildcats headed to St. Louis to face the 11th-seeded Saint Louis Billikens. Despite having the game delayed a day because of weather, Northwestern prevailed in a defensive battle, 1-0, at Robert R. Hermann Stadium, the site of the College Cup. It was a monumental win for the Wildcats against one of college soccer premier programs--a team that had won a record 10 national titles and had been to the tournament 43 times in the 48-year history of the event.
St. Louis native Roth scored the only goal, but keeper Justin Pines, who made his first start of the season in the last regular-season game against Northern Illinois, made seven saves and shut out the home team's offensive attack.
The 2006 season was another step toward national prominence for a program on the rise. Though the Wildcats lose scoring leaders Brad North and Gerardo Alvarez to graduation, Lenahan insists the team will bring back enough talent to build on the historic year.
"We should have a pretty good team chemistry and cohesiveness," he said.
With impact players like Roth, Carl Pett, Eamon O'Neill, Mark Blades, and central defenders Drew Ratner and Matt Witt returning, the Wildcats have a good mix of experience and talent as they look to make tournament runs a norm.
For Lenahan though, it will go beyond basic on-field talent.
"It just takes more focus," Lenahan said. "Getting good is pretty easy. Staying good or becoming a consistently great team is difficult."
For the moment, though, Northwestern can relish memories of a historic run and a senior class whose reputation will only grow with time.
The senior class (Gerardo Alvarez, Rich Nassif, Kyle Moore, John Carlstedt, Jeff Mills, Justin Pines, Will Nicholas, Daniel Chille and Brad North) departs as the winningest in program history
They can be defined just as much by individual accolades as team success. Alvarez is tied for second on the all-time list with teammate North with 28 career goals. His 80 points ties him for first on the all-time list. North, a two-time All Big-Ten and All Great Lakes selection became the first Northwestern player ever drafted in the MLS Superdraft when selected in the 2nd round by DC United.
It's a bittersweet departure, but this senior class and this 2006 team have left Northwestern not only with stirring memories, but also a confidence that should propel the program into 2007.
"I think we've only started to scratch the surface of who we can become."