BY CASANDRA PAGNI
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 7, 2010
Put all the correct pieces together and the puzzle will be complete, right?
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In the world of sports, the answer is not always yes.
The 11 starting members of the Michigan men’s soccer team — and the remainder waiting to get their feet wet in a game — are a mix of new talent and experienced leaders. The 2010 squad features dangerous offensive weapons to complement a veteran backfield and an experienced keeper.
This year’s group has the potential to be one of the most successful teams that Michigan head coach Steve Burns has coached in his 11 years at the helm.
Even with what seems like the right pieces on the field, potential hasn’t always translated into victories for the Wolverines. Completing the puzzle means fighting for a trip to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and this year’s team clearly has its work cut out for them.
The current roster features a special mix of energetic, very skillful youth, with win-hungry veterans who understand just what’s at stake every time they take the field.
One of the veterans — junior keeper Chris Blais — anchors Michigan’s defense in his second season as the Wolverine starter. Blais is as locked-in to the game as they come — and even trained with the MLS Seattle Sounders this summer to ensure he continued to get better in the offseason.
Last season, Blais ranked second in the Big Ten with a save percentage of .761 and a goals against average of 1.16. This year, the goalkeeper is a team captain and has become an obvious vocal leader from the box.
In addition to the Blais, the defense features two seniors in Chase Tennant and Jeff Quijano. In their final season as Wolverines, these defenders know that without last year’s defensive MVP Julian Robles, the job of locking down the backside of the field and helping Blais is left to them.
But Blais, Tennant, Quijano and the other Michigan defenders have already shown their ability to stifle opponents' attacks, as they held the 14th-ranked Drake Bulldogs to only four shots on goal and one goal in Friday’s contest.
Two of Michigan’s top three scorers from last season — senior forward Justin Meram and sophomore midfielder Hamoody Saad — return but have their work cut out for them, as leading scorer Mauro Fuzetti is now playing professional soccer.
But the duo hasn’t given fans any reason to worry about a lack of offensive flair, as Hamoody Saad has one of Michigan’s two goals already this season — his overtime goal led the Wolverines to their first victory over Detroit. Meram had nine shots in Friday’s loss to Drake, and led the team with four shots on goal.
“I think you’re always looking to make sure there are those spiritual leaders on the field and Justin is one of those guys,” Burns said. “He can get his team motivated, he can be dynamic on the field. He involves his teammates really well.”
Despite losing former stars Robles and Fuzetti, this year’s group is headed by a strong senior class, which leads as a group. It is those upperclassmen who know what the playoffs feel like, as Michigan last made an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 2008, their sophomore year.
It is the seasoned Wolverines who know they will need the entire team — not just certain pieces of puzzle — to step up and make big plays to keep them in Big Ten contention, and that means getting solid production out of their high-profile, highly recruited freshmen starters.
Michigan’s freshmen have been described as "fresh legs" for the team — as they have continually provided a burst of offensive energy thus far in the season.
Freshman forward Soony Saad and midfielder Fabio Pereria have combined for 10 shots on goal in Michigan’s two games, and already it's clear that these true freshmen will create legitimate scoring opportunities for their team.
Burns combines a group that has proven its ability to score and block shots in the net with rookies who are eager to get their names on the stat sheet. While the season is young and only time will tell what this group can accomplish, Michigan fields a balanced, fundamentally sound team with a solid senior class as its anchor.
The pieces are in place, and only time will tell what picture the puzzle will reveal.
But for the record, don’t be surprised if this group of Wolverines light up their brand new stadium this year.