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Oct 9, 2008

Northwestern's success founded on defense

Ever since Indiana won back-to-back national titles in 2003 and 2004, the coasts have pretty much dominated the college soccer landscape. Squads from Maryland, UCLA, UCSB and Wake Forest have received much of the attention, while teams from the middle of the country took a back seat for the first time in recent memory.

Not anymore.

This week, six of the top 10 teams in the land hail from regions the NSCAA classifies as Midwest, Middle Atlantic or Great Lakes.

Of those, none has been more impressive than Northwestern. The Wildcats have surpassed Indiana and 2007 national runner-up Ohio State as the class of the Big Ten this season. NU, now 9-0-2 after a 2-1 conference win on Oct. 4 against Penn State, jumped a spot this week to No. 2, its highest-ever position in the polls.

What has been the key to Northwestern's success, other than the consistent leadership of eighth-year coach (and recent 200-game winner) Tim Lenahan?

In a word, defense. The Wildcats have conceded just two goals through 11 outings this season. Before allowing the goal against the Nittany Lions, off a defensive miscue, Northwestern had posted seven straight shutouts (including two 0-0 ties). The D is stingy enough to be America's best: Northwestern sports a ridiculous .17 goals-against average, tops in Division I.

NCAA Scoreboard
This season, ESPNsoccernet brings you the scores from every men's and women's NCAA Division I game.

Click here for all the action.

On the other end of the field, sophomore forward Matt Eliason leads the way with nine goals. If things continue as they have, NU not only is a lock to make its fourth NCAA tournament in the past five years but also has an excellent chance to secure a first-ever berth in the College Cup (soccer's version of basketball's Final Four).

Northwestern heads to Wisconsin next for a Big Ten tilt on Sunday. A win there would equal the program's best start, set last season when the Wildcats also won 10 of their first 12 contests.

Of course, 2007 ended in heartbreak in Evanston. After receiving a first-round bye as the ninth-overall seed, NU lost to local rival (and current No. 7) Illinois-Chicago in its NCAA opener. That bitter experience might pay dividends come tourney time this year. Even though Lenahan's team features just two seniors, Northwestern looks like a group on a mission this season. It's still early, but don't be surprised if NU goes lot further this time out.

By the way, the other five noncoastal schools in the Top 10 are No. 3 Creighton, No. 4 Akron, Illinois-Chicago, No. 8 Louisville and No. 9 Saint Louis.

Quick hits

Speaking of Saint Louis, the unbeaten Billikens (6-0-5) are coming off consecutive eyebrow-raising results. No, they didn't actually win either game (or score a goal, for that matter). But they did manage to hold soaring Northwestern and equally high-flying Creighton to scoreless draws. Now come games that count. Saint Louis begins its Atlantic 10 docket this weekend with winnable matches at La Salle (on Friday) and Fordham (Sunday).

No. 12 Loyola-Maryland (8-0-1) also begins conference play this weekend (at Canisius on Sunday). The Greyhounds were the class of the Metro-Atlantic last year, winning both the regular-season and MAAC tournament titles. In fact, Loyola has won six of the past eight regular-season titles, claiming three postseason titles along the way.

Maryland slipped to 10th after being ranked second just two weeks ago. But after barely squeaking by Binghamton before losing to Clemson, the Terrapins got back on track with a 2-1 OT triumph over No. 21 Charlotte on Oct. 7. Perhaps the presence of former Terp Maurice Edu helped provide the needed inspiration. Edu, who sat on Maryland's bench during the match, is in the D.C. area ahead of Saturday's U.S.-Cuba World Cup qualifier at RFK Stadium.

Three big upsets this past weekend involved the Big East's big three teams. Previously undefeated St. John's lost at Louisville 2-1 on Oct. 4. Connecticut, beaten at St. John's one week earlier, dropped back-to-back league encounters, 1-0 at home to rebuilding West Virginia and 1-0 at Providence. Finally, Notre Dame suffered a second straight setback, too, losing 3-1 to Michigan on Oct. 1 (and falling to 15th in the polls).

Finally, ACC co-leader Virginia is back in the Top 25 after winning four straight. Three of those were league matches, including a huge 1-0 road victory on Oct. 3 against North Carolina. But Cavs fans should enjoy the good times now: UVa closes its regular-season schedule with visits from Maryland and Wake.

What to Watch For

No. 7 Louisville at No. 11 South Florida (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) If Louisville wasn't featured in this week's nationally televised match, the Cardinals would have received their props much higher up this column.

Louisville, which defeated then-No. 2 St. John's last week, has been a revelation this season under the direction of third-year bench boss Ken Lolla. "Kenny's a great coach," said St. John's counterpart Dr. Dave Masur. "I'd say all their success is due to the fact that he has put his stamp on that program."

Meanwhile, South Florida will probably drop a few places after being upset by DePaul on Tuesday. But the Bulls still share the Big East's Red Division lead with the Cards; both have identical 4-1-1 conference marks. History also favors USF. The Bulls lead the all-time series 12-4-2.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.

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