Iowa soccer set to face Northwestern in Big Ten opener

The Hawkeyes are looking for their first win against the Wildcats since 2014.


Casey Stone

Iowa defender Sara Wheaton goes to kick the ball during the Iowa Soccer game against Southeast Missouri State on Sep. 12, 2021 at the Iowa Soccer Complex. Iowa defeated Southeast Missouri 2-0.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

Iowa soccer has faced an uphill battle playing Northwestern in recent seasons, as the Hawkeyes have not defeated the Wildcats since Nov. 7, 2014, the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.

Since then, the Hawkeyes have lost four times to the Wildcats, tying them once.

But the 6-1-1 Hawkeyes believe they can flip the script when they face the Wildcats for the Big Ten opener Sunday in Iowa City.

“It is a team on our list that we want to check off,” senior defender Sara Wheaton said. “I think having that as motivation will be helpful. I think this team is great, and I think we’re in a great spot, and we’re playing really well. Also, with having only one game this weekend, hopefully all of our legs will be ready to go, and it should be a good game. I’m really excited.”

The 3-4 Wildcats will also have a week’s rest heading into the match — Northwestern is coming off a 1-0 win against crosstown rival DePaul. DiIanni said the Wildcats have been a good defensive team in the past and attacking in transition when the ball is in the middle third of the pitch will be important.

“Historically between our teams, the team that wins is the team that capitalizes on mistakes,” DiIanni said.

Right now, the Hawkeyes are satisfied with where they’re at heading into conference play. But in practice, Iowa has been working on some problem areas.

One thing Iowa is focused on improving is coming out of the gate strong for every match — a struggle evident in their last match against Southeast Missouri State.

RELATED: Iowa soccer pushes past Southeast Missouri State in final nonconference match

“I think we learned how important it was to show up for every game, and that you don’t really get breaks,” Wheaton said. “So, mental toughness in a way I guess you can say. There were a couple games where we came out slow and we didn’t perform as well as we should’ve for certain opponents, and we did get punished in certain ways for that.”

Another problem area for the Hawkeyes is finishing offensive possessions. The Hawkeyes have 151 shots — 80 on goal — but Iowa has only gotten the ball in the back of the net 15 times. Freshman forward Kenzie Roling and graduate transfer forward Alyssa Walker lead the team with four goals apiece.

Though the Hawkeyes have scored four more goals through eight games than the entirety of last season, DiIanni said Iowa could be converting more of its attempts.

“That’s actually a pro-con,” DiIanni said. “This team is so athletic, and we do have players that are creating chances. So, we’re creating more chances than we did in the past, but we need to finish those chances.”

Defensively, however, the Black and Gold are stronger than last season. In eight games, the backline has surrendered 0.5 goals and 6.5 shots per match — despite lineup changes.

Though defenders Wheaton, junior Sam Cary, and senior Olivia Hellweg have started every match, the fourth defensive spot has featured three different starters.

Sophomore Aleisha Ganief started the first four games before junior Natalie Massa took over the spot, starting three games. Against Kansas City Sept. 9, senior Riley Whitaker started her first match since 2019 after missing all of last season because of a torn ACL.

“There’s been some changes in and out with injuries and whatnot and then people just getting injured, people coming back,” Whitaker said. “But I think overall we’ve all worked together and been able to pressure and turn the ball over.”