Michigan's fairy-tale start rolls on
A crowd of 2,134 people swarmed the pitch, singing, “It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine”. They were joined by the Michigan men’s soccer team who had just seen off Wisconsin, holding out for a 2-1 win.
“In my two years here, I have never seen a crowd so big,” said junior midfielder Ivo Cerda. “It's good to have the fans come up, the Michigan Ultras, we are very thankful for them.”
The celebrations weren’t just for the game, but for acknowledging the fact that the Wolverines (1-0-0 Big Ten, 4-0-1 overall) may have put to bed their misfortunes of last season — the worst in program history — and look like an exciting team to support once again.
Having won just four games last year, Michigan outlasted the Badgers (0-1-0, 1-1-2) to equal that tally before recording their first loss. To put that into perspective, the Wolverines went more than two months without a win last year.
Michigan, playing a new 4-1-4-1 formation, spent most of the game staying composed and containing defensively, then hitting Wisconsin on the counterattack once they won the ball back.
Cerda — normally a midfielder — got the nod to play up front for the night as he filled in for the injured freshman forward Mohammed Zakyi. Cerda made the role his own with a tireless work rate that saw him be wherever his teammates needed him to be; always there to hold the ball up for a counter attack before laying it off for his wingers.
“Coach asked me to play up top, and I just tried to do what the team needed me to do,” Cerda said. “They needed me to hold the ball, worry and work their defenders, generate danger up there, and of course score goals.”
This strategy played out just the way Michigan wanted, when junior midfielder Robbie Mertz crossed the ball from the left six minutes in for Cerda who headed the ball past the helpless goalkeeper.
The rest of the half played out with Wisconsin trying to maintain possession, spread play wide and pass through Michigan’s midfield and defense. The Wolverines stayed patient, waiting for the Badgers to forfeit the ball, and then picked them off quickly on the counter.
For the better part of the first half, Michigan’s counters were led by freshman winger Umar Farouk Osman. The Wisconsin midfield and defense were unable to keep up with his blistering pace.
However, 23 minutes through the first half, Osman was replaced by star junior forward Francis Atuahene as he continued his recovery from injury. With Atuahene still getting back to full health, and Osman off the field, Michigan lost some of its spark as the Badgers started to find their feet in the game.
As Atuahene got to grips with the game, the Wolverines doubled their lead to two with eight minutes left. A Michigan corner resulted in a scramble in the Wisconsin box, and freshman midfielder Marc Ybarra took advantage of the chaos to smash the ball into the corner of the goal.
Wisconsin made the Wolverines work hard to maintain the shutout before halftime as they threw more men forward in the hopes of scoring. Junior defender Daniel Makunda put it all on the line when he brought down Wisconsin forward Christian Muller on a counter that earned him a yellow card.
Michigan subbed off sophomore winger Jack Hallahan for Osman at halftime, and with Cerda leading the line, Atuahene on his left, and Osman on his right, the Wolverines started the second half strong.
The Michigan front line proved to be a handful for the Badgers defense. Following a poor clearance from Wisconsin, Atuahene curled a shot destined for the top right corner. Wisconsin goalkeeper Phillip Schilling’s heroic diving save was the only thing stopping his team going down 3-0.
Four minutes later, Osman picked up the ball in midfield and beat two players before laying the ball off for Mertz who had drifted out wide on the right. Mertz — just like he did for Michigan’s first goal — sent in a tantalizing cross that Atuahene headed onto the ground and into the crossbar.
Throughout the game, the Wolverine front line shifted, with Cerda, Atuahene, Osman and Hallahan all getting playing time in different roles up top.
“Those guys (on the front line) are all competing for spots every single day and continue to compete and certainly, if they’re all doing well, then we’ll have a rotation,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley.
Added Cerda: “We have a lot of talent up front, and it just makes it fun and easier to play for a striker when you have those kinds of people around you.”
Michigan’s early intensity saw them slow down in the latter stages of the game, as Wisconsin started to attack more. The Wolverines needed to dig deep to keep the ball out of their goal.
The Badgers saw their best chances come from corners and free kicks which were increasingly difficult for the Michigan defense to deal with. Wisconsin’s incessant crossing finally worked after it finally beat Michigan goalkeeper Andrew Verdi. The linesman, however, cut their celebration short, flagging the goal offside.
With the clock running out, Wisconsin increased its barrage into the Wolverines’ box in hopes of finding a goal from somewhere. They finally got their break when Schilling booted the ball from his half into the Michigan box.
But Michigan held its composure to finish the game, and the wild celebration ensued.