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SportsMonday Column: Is campus ready for Fútbol Saturday?

Salam Rida/Daily
Chase Tennant plays for Michigan against Notre Dame on Friday, Sept. 17, 2010. Buy this photo

BY RYAN KARTJE
Daily Sports Editor
Published September 19, 2010

At every one of the Daily’s mass meetings, I try to take some time to talk sports with any students interested in writing for the sports section.

Usually I start off by asking them what sport they’re most passionate about and want to cover the most on campus. For me, and most of the other students who come out to write sports, that’s football. And it’s often not even close.

But at the latest mass meetings, the majority of students said they were interested in a different kind of football — the one with a “u” and an “o” and a significantly different ball. And each time, I did a double-take. This is the University of Michigan, after all, and all of you just want to cover soccer?

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching soccer. My roommates and I woke up every day for weeks at 7 a.m. in order to watch every single World Cup match we could possibly consume. And the Americans' win over Algeria in the match’s waning seconds is one of the best finishes I’ve ever seen in a sporting event.

But I’m not an avid follower of Manchester United. I don’t scour ESPNSoccer for Premier League highlights. And I surely can’t say that I’m the proud owner of an Ibrahimovic, No. 8 Inter-Milan jersey, whatever that is.

But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the rest of the Michigan sports environment may be slowly shifting, albeit slightly, in a fútbol, not football, direction.

On Friday, when the athletic department christened the brand new, beautiful U-M Soccer Complex, 3,503 people came out to watch an incredible, double-overtime draw with Notre Dame that saw probably 100 people confined to standing room only, behind the South goal. There wasn’t even sitting room for some Notre Dame players’ parents.

And now with a relevant student group — the Michigan Ultras — planting the seeds for a great student section, it’s clear that this whole Michigan soccer thing could be going somewhere — and fast.

By my rules, a program budding in popularity needs three things to remain relevant: a great place to play, a great coach and electrifying talented players who a fan base can get behind.

The great place to play is obvious, as the $6 million, state-of-the-art soccer complex is one of the best places to play in college soccer.

The women’s soccer team — despite it’s subpar record in the past few years — is coached by much-talked-about head man Greg Ryan who helmed the U.S. Women’s Soccer team to a 45-1-9 record from 2005 to 2007. If not for a controversial call to bench goalie Hope Solo, Ryan would still be the team’s coach. Fired or not, he’s got to be a hell of a coach to amass that kind of record.

And men’s soccer coach Steve Burns is no slouch either, basically having the built the program with his bare hands into a Big Ten title contender.

But most important, both teams are winning and doing it in exciting ways.

The Saad brothers, Hamoody and Soony have taken the men’s soccer team by storm, scoring at will and accounting for six of the team’s nine goals. Plus, the possibilities of Saad brothers-themed student section chants and small cult followings seem absolutely endless.

And the women’s team boasts a similar pair of exciting young players in Nkem Ezurike and Meghan Toohey with just as many possibilities for students to get behind.

Look, I’m not foolish enough to think that this past summer’s World Cup is ready to vault soccer into the hierarchy of American sports. It’s just not that simple. And every argument to that effect that always falls short.

But a seed has most definitely been planted in Ann Arbor, and it may only be a short time before the whole campus wears their Soony Saad or Meghan Toohey jerseys down State Street on Fútbol Saturday.


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