It was never like this: Joey Calistri not scoring goals, playing defense, treading conservatively. Even as an eighth grader at Northwestern’s summer soccer camp, the shortest forward was causing the biggest disruption.
“He was just scoring six or seven goals a game at these camps and parents were calling to complain that this one kid was making all the games unfair,” Northwestern head coach Tim Lenahan said. “That’s where we first saw him.”
Calistri, who a month later would become the first ever freshman to play varsity for Deerfield High school, earned a spot on the MLS Chicago Fire’s youth academy and then spent the next four years duping amateur defenders and angering local parents with the sound of balls bouncing off the backyard fence past midnight. He's the man who brought Lenahan’s celebrated program into its second decade of success.
But now, Calistri is a senior and the Wildcats are in the doghouse. A team that hasn’t finished under .500 since 2002, Lenahan’s second season, is 6-7-2. And Calistri, the Big Ten’s active leader in career goals, hasn’t scored since Oct. 7. The Deerfield native stands just three goals shy of the Matt Eliason’s Wildcats record of 33, but his ascent has slowed as Northwestern’s power has faded.
Calistri strikes an imposing presence, despite his height. He’s added 30 pounds since he came to Northwestern, mostly muscle by the looks of it, though he still wears the same military crewcut. He walks with the authority his captain status implies and gives a presidential handshake.
But on the field Calistri can blend in. Northwestern now uses a more conservative scheme and he often plays back with the defense. Northwestern ranks last in the Big Ten with 15 goals on the season, 20 behind conference-leading Rutgers. In three seasons, Calistri has never finished outside of the top ten in goals scored. He is currently tied for 15th.
It’s a big difference from Calistri’s early years, the last time he faced such adversity. When he joined the club in 2012, the team was desperate. Fresh off its first Big Ten championship, Northwestern lost MLS-bound All-NCAA forward Oliver Kupe, and faced the prospect of returning to mediocrity.
“We were wondering where the goals were going to come from,” Lenahan recalled. “His freshman year, he stepped in and he scored nine goals as a freshman, including the goal of the year for us.”
Down 1-0 against Indiana in the 52nd minute of the Wildcats’ final regular season game, Calistri lofted a ball into an empty net to even the score. The match ended in a draw, and after a Michigan state loss, a Big-Ten co-championship. Three weeks later, Calistri knocked in a game-winner against Marquette to send Northwestern to its first Sweet 16.
“I had a lot of responsibility on me from from beginning because there wasn’t a striker on the team,” Calistri said. “I really just got thrown in there and there wasn’t really many other options so it’s a good thing I did do well.”
Calistri topped his freshman campaign with arguably the best sophomore season in Wildcat history. Leading the conference with 28 points and 12 goals, he won First Team All-Big Ten honors.
After playing with ex-Wildcats Scott Lakin and Connor Holloway on the Chicago Fire as a kid, Calistri followed his former teammates to Northwestern.
“Just having the trust of my teammates as soon as I got here and knowing a couple guys from my team [was important],” Calistri said. “The team has such a togetherness.”
And Calistri saw a future with them.
“When you have a little bit of success, Big Ten stuff, it just makes you hungry to get more,” Calistri said.
But Lakin and Holloway have now graduated, leaving Calistri as the go-to guy. Meanwhile, the man who led the team in assists for most of Calistri’s sophomore season, Brandon Medina, has spent most of the last few seasons rehabbing ACL injuries.
“You need that of distributor to connect everything,” Lenahan said.
So Calistri’s role on the club slowly changed. He took part of that role as facilitator and carried the defense as well. Meanwhile, opposing teams adopted strategies to neutralize the former scoring champ.
“You could call it beginner’s luck, but I don’t think that’s it,” said goalkeeper Zak Allen, who played with Calistri on the Chicago Fire before they both joined the ‘Cats. “A lot of teams just know the scout on Joey.”
Calistri still praises the team’s cohesion, but now he is the glue trying to hold it together, rather than a shiny new part in a complete unit.
“I think at the beginning of the year we were struggling a little bit [with our] organization in the back,” Calistri said. “We had some new guys back there, but going through a couple games together, we’ve gelled and gotten to know each other tendencies.”
Calistri, though, will soon have more on his mind than Northwestern. In January, he will look to become the sixth Wildcat to enter the MLS.
“[The Chicago Fire] is a possibility for me,” Calistri said.
The problem is Calistri’s height. The MLS is by no means the NBA, but size still matters. One thing, however, can make height irrelevant. It's the same thing that will decide Calistri’s place in Wildcat lore, and it's the same thing that will decide Northwestern’s season.
“If you want to play forward you have to score goals,” Lenahan said.