With a shade over a minute remaining in regulation, Nebojsa Popovic steadied himself 15 yards from the goal, readying for a penalty kick. The game’s fate hung in the balance. Michigan’s hopes rested firmly in his right foot.
When the Wolverines needed him most, the graduate transfer forward delivered. Popovic buried the game-winning kick past Notre Dame’s goalkeeper Duncan Turnbull in the 89th minute, giving the Michigan men's soccer team (7-4-3 overall, 2-1-2 Big Ten) a 1-0 victory over Notre Dame (7-6-1, 1-5 ACC) on Tuesday.
To his teammates and coaches alike, there was never a doubt that Popovic would take care of business in the clutch.
“I was really confident that Nebojsa was gonna put it away,” said senior goalkeeper Andrew Verdi. “He stepped up, he’s been working on it in training. I knew he was gonna tuck it away and we were gonna walk out with a 1-0 win.”
If Popovic played the role of hero, then senior forward Jack Hallahan was his sidekick. Returning from a two-game absence, Hallahan offered a needed boost to the Wolverine offense. In fact, it was Hallahan who forced his way through the teeth of the Fighting Irish defense, drawing the foul that set the stage for Popovic’s heroics.
“(Hallahan) was definitely electric tonight,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “Caused some problems for them and eventually got dragged down in the box. It was definitely a game-changing moment for him. He did a great job.”
While not able to capitalize until the game’s final minutes, the Wolverine offense created numerous opportunities through aggressive play up front. Popovic and sophomore forward Derick Broche had three shots apiece for a Michigan team that out-shot Notre Dame, 13-9.
On the defensive end, Verdi keyed the shutout with another stellar performance, recording five saves on the night.
“I was pleased that I was able to respond when called upon,” Verdi said. “Just like in any game though, the goalkeeper’s performance is really reliant on the line of guys in front of him. All (10) put in a heck of an effort in front of me today.”
Michigan's effort against Notre Dame stood in stark contrast to its performance last time out against Western Michigan, a 2-1 loss on Thursday. The Wolverines let their emotions get the best of them in what was a chippy, foul-filled contest against the Broncos. This time around, though, the team remained composed amidst the Fighting Irish’s physicality, which came in the form of 20 fouls, two yellow cards and a late red card.
“Our attitude and approach to calls and adversity was much stronger,” Daley said. “You know, we really worked on having conversations about what that looked like, and how to stay involved and engaged in the game despite the ref’s call.”
Daley also lauded the resiliency the team displayed in rebounding for a difficult road win after consecutive losses. With just three games left in the regular season, getting back in the win column was imperative.
“Today we had great energy, great spirit about us, came out with fire,” Verdi said. “We put the team under pressure in the first half and followed that in the second half, so it just really boosted our confidence.
“The team’s definitely hungry for more.”