BY TIM ROHAN
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 23, 2009
The Michigan women's soccer team was tired, injured and coming off a disappointing loss.
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The Wolverines were playing Southern Cal on Sept. 13 — a team that had a preseason No. 8 ranking — with a ragtag group of starters, second-stringers and youngsters making their first career starts.
Michigan led for most of the tightly contested game. The Wolverines lost 2-1, but even in defeat, Michigan learned it can play with physical and talented teams this year. Not next year, or the year after — this year.
Expectations haven't been high for a while. The Wolverines were 4-10-5 last season, in Ryan's first year, and the program hasn't had a winning record since 2006.
But since the Wolverines' game against Southern Cal, they have been playing winning soccer. That culminated in last Sunday's win over Miami (Fla.)
Michigan (5-5) beat the Hurricanes 1-0 and passed last year's win total. With 20 seconds left in the first half, freshman Holly Hein kicked in her own rebound off of a free kick from junior Jackie Carron to score the game's winning goal.
After the game, Michigan coach Greg Ryan said he knew how important the win was for his team.
"It means that the girls can start believing in themselves," Ryan said. "These girls, going into the Big Ten season, are going to say, 'Okay, maybe this team has a little bit more experience and more depth.'... We can beat these level teams if we play the right way."
There are three keys to Michigan's recent resurgence, and if the Wolverines continue to follow these, the rest of the season will be a success.
First and foremost, the goalie competition is over — Michigan needs redshirt freshman Haley Kopmeyer to be the netminder.
When the Wolverines' defense did make mistakes against the Hurricanes, Kopmeyer made the necessary plays to win. She also made multiple saves to preserve a shutout on Sept. 16, when Michigan topped Oakland 3-0.
Kopmeyer had been splitting time in the net with redshirt sophomore Kristen Keane, with each goalie making five starts this season. Kopmeyer has started the last three games dating back to the close loss at Southern Cal. But Kopmeyer has 39 saves on the year with an 83-percent save percentage. Keane has 10 saves and a 50-percent save percentage.
Kopmeyer's two consecutive shutouts show that she deserves to be the full-time starting goalie.
The second step to success is to play tight and smart defense, which has not been a problem lately for the Wolverines. When the ball is in their half of the zone they have a plan to control it. And if someone gets beat on a play, a defender covers up for her teammate. Against Miami, Michigan allowed the Hurricanes to get deep into its zone, but then cracked down, forcing most of Miami's shots to come from outside the box.
All of Michigan's defenders have been on top of their games last week, too. Moving the ball well and keeping in front of the offense has proved to be a positive strategy for the Wolverines defense.
And finally, Michigan's offense must continue to capitalize on opposing defenses' mistakes. Converting on lapses on defensive coverage and timely attacks are the way to go. The Wolverines have taken advantage of the few opportunities they have received, but they need to realize that they cannot score at will. The team doesn't have the players to do that.
With junior Jackie Carron taking the free kicks, the Wolverines are in a good position to continue this style of offense, which is efficient yet not too flashy.
Carron has been clutch all year with her placement. Her teammates and coach all have praised her kicks, and she leads the team with six assists.
But this won't yield much more offense. Michigan has scored a meager 1.5 goals per game this season, while opponents have tallied 1.8 goals per game.
The Wolverines need to continue to cash in on the few opportunities they get per game since with a strong defense and reliable goalkeeper, that should be enough to win games.
Sunday's victory over Miami has the Wolverines' confidence at an all-time high in the Ryan era, and they are playing winning soccer. But they need to keep it up to make 2009 a competitive year instead of another transition one.