You can bet that anyone wearing maize and blue at the first round of the men’s NCAA tournament in Ann Arbor had to have been biting their nails Thursday night.
Michigan coach Chaka Daley might have been one of them. “It was a nervy game for us,” Daley said.
Niagara (5-1-1 MAAC, 13-2-4 overall), a small school in New York near the Canadian border, netted the first goal of the match on its first shot on goal of in the 60th minute. To make matters worse for the Michigan men’s soccer team, it was outshooting the Purple Eagles 8-0 at the time, but the goals weren’t going in.
But the Wolverines prevailed, 3-1, in a match that was a bit more frustrating than nervy. A week before Thanksgiving, Michigan can be grateful for junior midfielder Fabio Pereira’s string of three goals in seven minutes stemming a near disaster for the Wolverines.
“It’s fantastic to get a hat trick, but the most important thing is that we’re in the second round of the tournament,” Pereira said. “This is what we’ve been working toward all season.”
Just to illustrate how uneven this match was, Michigan (3-2-1 Big Ten, 11-9-1) fired 16 shots in the first half opposed to Niagara’s single shot that soared well wide of the net. By the end of the match, the Wolverines had tested Niagara senior goalkeeper Brett Petricek with 11 shots on goal, while Michigan sophomore goalkeeper Adam Grinwis faced just two shots.
Missed opportunities have been the downfall for Michigan for most of the season and tonight was no different. But the Wolverines made up for it with more than enough opportunities — 26 shots fired at the Purple Eagles net.
Michigan dominated Niagara from the first kickoff, both in creating offensive pressure and consistently stifling the opposing attack. But the Wolverines need to get better offensively by Sunday’s second round match against No. 1 Akron if they hope to score an upset.
“It’s about being a little more sharp in the final third and finishing our chances,” Pereira said. “Having 16 shots (in the first half) and not scoring is pretty bad.”
Daley and the team know what to work on in practice leading up to Sunday, but there were several positives to take away from Thursday’s match.
“Earlier in the season, if we would have conceded that first goal, we would have folded,” Daley said. “We’re a different team now. We showed a lot of character tonight and found a way (to win).”
The resilience of this Michigan squad has been evident throughout the last few weeks. Daley credits the 1-0 desperation victory against Valparaiso on Oct. 27 as the turning point of the season, and without that 87th-minute goal by Pereira that day, it is likely the Wolverines would not have been playing tonight.