Women's Soccer Preview: Michigan still recovering from offseason losses
Yes, the Michigan women’s soccer team lost seven seniors and seven starters from a year ago, when it finished in the Elite Eight.
Yes, it lost all-time leading scorer Nkem Ezurike and three multi-year starters on the back line.
Yes, it will rely heavily on a group of 11 freshmen to fill in the gaps.
But are the Wolverines rebuilding? That depends on who you ask.
In six years under coach Greg Ryan, Michigan has built from the bottom up to become a Big Ten contender. The Wolverines have improved their record four out of the past five years, but the'll test their progress this season.
Ryan made it clear Michigan isn’t back where it was six years ago, when it slumped to a 4-10-5 finish in his first season. The talent is there, but getting back to being a Final Four contender won’t be easy.
“I would say we’re definitely rebuilding — with the goal of winning,” Ryan said. “Our goal is going to be rebuild as in regaining that same quality of the teams we’ve had over the past few years, and at the same time, try and be as successful as we can right now. But we’re certainly not at that level at this point.”
Wherever the Wolverines are now, midfielder Jen Pace thinks they’ll be able to contend by the end of the season and isn’t holding anything back going into her senior season.
“I don’t think it’s a rebuilding year,” Pace said. “But obviously people look at us and see that we lost seven seniors and seven starters and key players that have been there for four years. Other people will be looking at it as a rebuilding year, but we definitely have a lot of talent and don’t want to see it as a rebuilding year. We’re taking what we have and building our team off of that.”
Michigan has four returning regular starters: sophomore goalie Taylor Bucklin, sophomore midfielder Madisson Lewis, senior defender Chloe Sosenko and junior defender Christina Ordonez.
Of those four, Lewis and Ordonez have been playing on the back line, where they haven’t gotten much experience. Sosenko missed last week’s exhibition against Western Michigan with an internal issue Ryan declined to elaborate upon — her status will be determined before game time of the season opener Friday. Bucklin is playing behind an almost entirely new back line.
Ryan is realistic about Michigan's progress early on. He doesn't sugarcoat his team's outlook.
“We’re definitely making progress, it’s just how much ground can we make up with eight new starters in the lineup?” Ryan said. “It’s just hard to say. It’s one thing when you’re practicing and doing OK, and it’s another thing in a game against a good opponent like Cal State Northridge.”
The Wolverines will also start the season in mostly a simple 4-3-3 formation, which Ryan will use to get the young players acclimated. Last season, Michigan played an aggressive 4-1-4-1 that could turn into a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 going forward.
To help with the adjustment, the team will also rely on a new cast of leaders, led by senior captains Sosenko and Pace. They headline a small senior class of five players with a tough act to follow.
“Some of the character qualities of the last group we had, they were just tenacious — they were fighters,” Ryan said. “This team, with so many new people in the lineup, they’re just learning how to play together. They’ve got a long ways to go in that, and they’ve got a long ways to go in quality and intensity and focus.
“But they’ll get there. We know what Michigan soccer looks like, what it is, and there’s plenty of talent here to get there. It just doesn’t happen overnight.”