Most NCAA soccer teams could liken their season to a roller-coaster ride, but for the Michigan men’s soccer team, its 2012 campaign was quite the opposite.
Michigan coach Chaka Daley and his squad started their season at the top of the hill with their hands in the air, heading down a 70-degree drop at roughly 60 miles per hour.
The Wolverines were defeated in five of their first seven games, a disastrous beginning to a new era of Michigan soccer. A team that had been to the national semifinal just two years ago seemed to be heading for another rebuilding year.
“Consistency wasn’t there until the halfway point (of the season),” Daley said. “Some important players were playing underneath their expectations.”
Many players were putting forth sufficient effort, but questioning if they could actually get positive results midway through the season. But against Ohio State, in one of the most important matches of the season, that 70-degree drop seemed to subside at least for a moment.
A thrilling, double-overtime victory against the Buckeyes generated confidence back into the Michigan squad, leading to its first multi-game unbeaten streak. Optimism was finally evident in the locker room.
“The goal (for the season) was to instill a culture of consistently winning,” Daley said. “Growth throughout the season is very important to us.”
The Wolverines often struggled away from Ann Arbor, and the three games in a row they won were all at home. In the next two games, both on the road, Michigan fell short to Wisconsin and No. 3 Akron.
Searching for answers in the midst of a 4-7-1 record, the Wolverines stormed into Bloomington for their first road win in what the team called one of the season’s turning points.
“That Indiana game gave us (the) confidence we needed to be the very best,” said freshman forward James Murphy. “We improved game after game (after that).”
Michigan had a minor lapse against Bowling Green a few days later, possibly an emotional hangover from the well-earned victory at Indiana. But following the tough loss at home, Michigan rattled off five straight wins en route to the Big Ten Tournament final.
The first of those wins was the second turning point of the season, according to Daley.
“We allowed our guys not to be mediocre anymore,” Daley said. “We had a tough season and they didn’t play to the final whistle. Losing to Bowling Green was the big wake up call.”
In an attempt to reach the .500 mark — required to qualify for the NCAA Tournament — the Wolverines needed to win their first match of the Big Ten Tournament, which they did. Later that weekend, a crushing defeat at the hands of Michigan State could have sent Michigan back down that same hill they started on.
But with the strength derived from previous adversity, the team responded with composure. It grew a vast amount from the beginning to the end, just like Daley expects out of his teams.
“To continue and develop and grow from frosh to senior is a big thing for us,” Daley said. “I think we demonstrated that.”
In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, down one goal with 30 minutes remaining, junior midfielder Fabio Pereira surely lived up to expectations by scoring a hat trick in just seven minutes. Propelling the Wolverines into the next round of the tournament was an amazing feeling, Pereira said. The results were finally there.
In one of the most entertaining games of the season, and surely sophomore goalkeeper Adam Grinwis’ best performance, Michigan fell to Akron in the second round of the tournament to end its remarkable late-season run.
After winning six of their last eight matches, the Wolverines said they believe they have the confidence and talent to build off of that late success and turn it into next year’s early-season momentum.
They’ll hope to start on the right side of the roller coaster this time around, holding their arms in the air without heading downhill, but with a national championship trophy in their sights.
“The players returning should be hungry,” Daley said.
Daley should have quite an appetite himself, especially after a year of spending countless hours learning alongside with his team and the university.
“I’ve learned a lot about the Michigan way, Michigan pride, the Big Ten rivalries and how important and influential they are,” he said. “But the players and the (Michigan) Ultras, that’s what I’ve learned the most about.”
Be sure to fasten your seatbelt and keep your head and hands inside the ride at all times. For the Wolverines, next year should be a thrilling one.