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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Previewing women’s soccer: There’s work to be done

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By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published August 21, 2014

The No. 7 Michigan women’s soccer team lives in the shadow of itself.

It stressed that it can’t pretend to be the team it was last year — the same team that made it to the Elite Eight.

Its coach, Greg Ryan, doesn’t think about any season other than the one that lies ahead. The expectations remain the same, even if the team isn't.

The reality is that this year’s team is not yet up to par with its predecessor, and that much was evident last week when the Wolverines lost their only exhibition match of the season against Western Michigan. Last season, they shut out the Broncos 5-0.

Now missing its most decorated senior class along with an anchor for the midfield, Michigan has decided to take on the “underdog” mentality.

Ryan knows the time to relish in last season is over. It’s back to the basics — what matters now is making sure this team plays like one.

Last Wednesday, the Big Ten conference picked Michigan to finish fifth this season. Penn State was predicted to finish first in the conference.

Last season, the Wolverines (9-1-1 Big Ten, 18-4-1 overall) finished second in the conference.

Michigan’s progress will be put to the test Friday when it hosts the season opener against Cal. State Northridge followed by Bowling Green on Sunday. With the 2014 campaign underway, the Daily breaks down this year’s squad.

Defenders:

Last season, the Wolverines were characterized by a flatlining defense. Opponents were typically forced to shoot from 18-yards out, and the defense allowed just 12 goals through the regular season.

Now, though, the defense is in need of the most rebuilding

The backline lost three multi-year starters — Shelina Zadorsky, Kayla Mannino and Holly Hein. Michigan’s best hope of restoring the defense to full strength is senior Chloe Sosenko, one of the team's captains. Sosenko’s experience and leadership will be crucial for maintaining the composure of the defense, which is why its alarming she missed the exhibition match.

To build the defense further, Ryan has converted sophomore Madisson Lewis from forward to defender.

As last year’s second-leading scorer, with six goals and nine assists, Lewis was recently moved to the backline, and will likely stay there throughout the first part of the season. Her speed and agility should help maintain the defensive solidity, while she stays toward the flank to wait for scoring opportunities.

Lewis joins nine other defenders: Sosenko and senior Keyana Thompson-Shaw; juniors Christina Ordonez — converting from midfield — and Sydney Raguse; sophomores Rosalind Porritt, Bailey Haydock, Melissa Kreutz, and Anna Soccorsi; and freshman Alyssa Dillon.

Sosenko and Thompson-Shaw are the only seniors at the back. Last October, Ryan credited Thompson-Shaw as the “best individual defender” on the team — she’s played just 14 games in three years, but could see more playing time.

According to Lewis, the backline needs more communication. But Ryan said this will be an amazing backline in due time.

Goalkeepers:

The last line of defense has been and will remain one of the team’s more stable positions this season.

Sophomore goalkeeper Taylor Bucklin still appears to be the standout player between the posts after starting every game last season, when she recorded .878 save percentage and posted 12 shutouts. In December, Ryan described Bucklin’s progression by saying what she had learned in her first year took former goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer four years.

With five talented goalkeepers on this year’s roster, the position is always up for grabs if Bucklin runs into a dry spell. Rounding out Ryan’s other options in front of the net are senior Zaryn Jennings, junior Maddie Clarfield, freshmen Sarah Jackson and Megan Hinz.

During the recent exhibition match, Bucklin earned the starting nod and made one save in her first-half performance. Hinz played the first 30 minutes of the second frame followed by Clarfield, who then allowed the lone goal with three minutes remaining.

While enormous pressure is put on the goalkeepers to make saves, they'll be responsible for organizing the backline in front of them, a task Bucklin didn’t need to do much of with an experience group in front of her.

Forwards:

Ryan doesn’t make too great of a sacrifice by moving Lewis to defense — not with the depth the Wolverines have at forward.

He has successfully stacked this year’s roster at 30 players, one extra than last year, to give himself the options he needs in order to have some flexibility.

Aside from Ryan having some alternatives, the competition for spots have made the Wolverines strive to improve.

Sophomore forward Nicky Waldeck, who played in 19 games last season, starting only once, emulates that best. Waldeck found her calling in the spring season when she took over the central forward spot after Lewis broke her foot and quickly proved she could handle the role.

Ryan cites Waldeck as the most improved player, an opinion backed by her name on the Big Ten Player to Watch list. If she lives up to expectations, she could be the answer to the vacancy left by forward Nkem Ezurike, Michigan’s all-time leading scorer.

Aside from Waldeck, freshman forward Ani Sarkisian, a Florida State Transfer, is back at full health after missing the 2013 season for the Seminoles due to an injury. She was named to the Big Ten's Player to Watch list despite sitting out last season.

Joining the two powerhouse players are juniors Lulu Haidar and Corinne Harris — both of whom bring experience up front — and freshmen Danielle Hogarth and Taylor Timko.

Midfield:

On top of losing seniors Meghan Toohey and Tori McCombs at the midfield, Michigan suffered another major departure when junior Christina Murillo announced she’d be training with the Mexican National Team for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Together, the trio formed the core of the midfield. But Ryan isn’t without his options — there are more midfielders (12) than any other position player.

Seniors Jen Pace and Megan Schechtman will lead the midfield, which is comprised of mainly underclassmen. The only other upper-class midfielders are Corinne Harris and Cassie Collins.