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2010-12-10

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Wolverines hoping for Miracle on Grass in College Cup semifinal matchup with powerhouse Akron

Jake Fromm/Daily
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By Neal Rothschild, Daily Sports Writer
Published December 9, 2010

Everyone has heard of the Miracle on Ice — when the heavily favored hockey juggernaut from the Soviet Union lost to the upstart United States team, 4-3, in an epic upset at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

What many don't know is that the Soviets obliterated the Americans 10-3 at Madison Square Garden in a game played just days before the Winter Games opened in Lake Placid.

The Michigan men’s soccer team will try to recreate a similar scenario in Friday night’s match against No. 3 seed Akron (20-1-2). Earlier this season, the Wolverines suffered an embarrassing 7-1 loss at the hands of the Zips. It was Akron's largest margin of victory this season.

Just as the American hockey team turned the tables on the USSR in the semifinals of the medal round in Lake Placid, No. 10 seed Michigan hopes to reverse its luck against Akron in the semifinals of the College Cup in Santa Barbara, Calif.

“They beat the snot out of us for sure,” Michigan coach Steve Burns said. “But I wanted to remind the guys just how far they’ve come from that game and how much we’ve focused on becoming a better team defensively.”

Burns credits much of this success to a drill he instituted in practice following the Akron loss. He calls the four-on-four drill the “SOG game” in which the offense attempts to get a shot on goal while the defense attempts to prevent it without fouling.

“It has helped these guys gain that defensive discipline that really is making a difference in how we play as a team,” Burns said.

The emphasis on defense has paid dividends for the Wolverines (17-4-3). They have not allowed more than two goals in a game since the loss to Akron.

The 1980 U.S. hockey team placed renewed emphasis on the defensive end following the pre-Olympic loss to the USSR. The Americans didn’t allow more than three goals in a game throughout the Olympics.

Michigan’s lockdown defense hasn’t just kept the score low; it's won games. Since the 7-1 loss and subsequent defensive adjustments, the Wolverines have won nine straight.

Following the U.S. team's 10-3 drubbing, the Americans did not lose a game during the 1980 Olympics.

Freshman forward Soony Saad, his brother — sophomore midfielder Hamoody Saad — and senior forward Justin Meram have accounted for much of the Wolverines’ potent attack. Meram currently has an eight-game scoring streak with 16 goals this season.

Michigan will try to take down one of the most dominant programs in college soccer. Akron has the highest winning percentage in NCAA Division-I soccer since 2005 and has made the NCAA Tournament nine of the last 10 years, reaching the College Cup three times.

After going undefeated last season before falling to Virginia on penalty kicks in the national championship, the Zips have cruised to another dominant season. Led by Jamaican-born freshman forward Darren Mattocks, the nation's third-leading scorer, Akron hopes to get over the hump and bring home the school’s first team national championship.

“There is a little more pressure on them,” redshirt junior goalkeeper Chris Blais said. “I think our team isn’t afraid of anyone, and we’re going to be ready to play Akron on Friday night and we’re going to go out and win that game.”

Just as the Americans had to take care of business by beating Finland in the final game of the medal round, Michigan, too, realizes it has work left to do.

When talking about the team reaching the College Cup, Burns referenced a different moment in sports history to motivate the team. He explained how when Isiah Thomas’s Detroit Pistons team finally beat the Boston Celtics in the 1988 Eastern finals, Kevin McHale offered Thomas the following words as they walked off the court:

“Congrats on getting there, but that’s not good enough.”

“The focus of our team has been to get to the College Cup,” Burns said. “I congratulated the guys on getting there, but I think every one of these guys realizes that this may be a once-in-a-career opportunity.”