The silence from the Nebraska fan section at U-M Soccer Stadium was deafening.
In the final 20 minutes of Sunday’s game, the No. 24 Michigan women’s soccer team (9-3-1 overall, 3-3-1 Big Ten) put the game out of Nebraska’s (3-8-2, 2-4-0) reach, closing out the match and winning, 4-1. Cornhusker fans, who showed up in large numbers and whose vocal support had buoyed the team thus far, fell into a defeated hush.
From the game’s opening touches, Nebraska played an aggressive brand of soccer that bordered on reckless. It intercepted Wolverine passes and pushed the ball out of bounds; it took shots without the help of an extra pass. As a team, the Cornhuskers’ initial game plan was to erode Michigan’s offensive momentum and sacrifice possession to achieve a fields-based advantage. An abundance of slide tackles and one-on-one matchups elucidated two teams in midseason form with their eyes on the upcoming Big Ten tournament.
The Wolverines’ back four had the daunting task of fending off Nebraska’s attacks, which often included seven or even eight players rushing into the Michigan 18-yard box.
According to sophomore defender Janiece Joyner, the back line balanced that responsibility with applying offensive pressure themselves.
“On the back line we focused on pushing our outside backs,” Joyner said. “My teammates were releasing me to make plays higher up the field.”
With so many Cornhuskers assisting in the vigorous upfield attacks, the Wolverines were able to turn the tides with a fast-paced transition game. Once the ball was into Nebraska territory, Michigan junior midfielder Sarah Stratigakis was instrumental in continued execution by notching two assists.
Thanks to two first-half goals by sophomore midfielder Meredith Haakenson and junior midfielder Nicki Hernandez, the Wolverines looked as if they had solved the problems that the Cornhuskers’ relentless attacks posed – and a method to punish their overreach.
But Nebraska came out with a slightly different agenda for the last hour of the contest. The Cornhuskers established a new offensive identity of more methodical and precise ball and player movement. They prevented Michigan from creating lasting possession in their own defensive third, and at the same time allowed Nebraska to make consistent threats on goal.
“As a back line, it was key for us to stay organized,” Joyner said.
But the back four, along with Wolverines junior goalkeeper Hillary Beall, could only do so much against the revamped attack. After Beall was forced to the far post to make a save, the deflection landed at the feet of Cornhusker midfielder Theresa Pujado, who delivered the ball to the other post before Beall could recover.
With the score at 2-1, the middle minutes of the second half were well-executed and fiercely competed. Both teams fought for the ball with liberal use of tackles, requiring deft ball control to maintain possession. Give-and-gos by the Michigan midfield gave the Wolverines some threatening offensive moments, but none found the back of the net.
Besides several offsides calls whistled against Michigan, momentum changed sides freely due to the relative dearth of set pieces.
In the 75th minute, opportunity struck for the Wolverines after nearly a half-hour of nothing panning out for either squad. Stratigakis received the ball at midfield after a fast break and used a pinpoint pass to hit fifth-year senior defender Sura Yekka on the run as she sped toward the Nebraska goal. Yekka split her two defenders and struck the ball to the inside post, expanding the lead to 3-1. It was her first career goal, one which gave Michigan a crucial advantage – on the scoreboard and in the mental game.
“When players score and their teammates get excited,” said Michigan coach Jennifer Klein, “it kind of gives the whole team the motivation to keep going.”
That motivation manifested itself just two minutes later. Sophomore midfielder Skylar Anderson crossed the ball into the Nebraska penalty box, where it was redirected into the back of the net in midair by sophomore midfielder Kierra Krawec – the second Wolverine of the afternoon to net her first career goal. Her efforts put Michigan up three and turned the last 12 minutes of a hard-fought match into a de facto victory lap.
Nebraska faithful started trickling out long before the final whistle. The silence they left behind spoke as loud as their former words of encouragement.