Coming off a nail-biting win against Penn State last Sunday, the Michigan men’s soccer team had a more routine Friday night, overpowering a struggling Rutgers team, 3-1.
Michigan (4-1-1 Big Ten, 7-3-2 overall) came out strong, creating opportunities early and often. Rutgers (0-6-0 Big Ten, 2-9-1 overall) gave way to the Wolverines’ persistence, as the deadlock broke after just seven minutes. Junior midfielder Robbie Mertz dribbled into the box before sliding the ball to find junior midfielder Ivo Cerda for the tap-in finish.
Michigan continued to push numbers forward and carve out scoring chances. Twelve minutes after Cerda scored, freshman forward Mohammed Zakyi played a perfect ball junior forward Francis Atuahene, who fired a shot back across the goalkeeper to extend the Wolverines’ lead to two.
“It was good. It set the bar high, and gave the defenders a little bit of relief,” Atuahene said. “The earlier you score goals the more confidence you gain.”
Added Michigan coach Chaka Daley: “Any time you score two goals early at home you want to ride the wave. We had a great crowd and the Ultras were here. We had to battle some minor elements, but they were here in full voice and it certainly pushes our team on when the Ultras are here.”
Toward the end of the first half, momentum shifted in favor of the Scarlet Knights. Michigan looked a bit complacent and was sloppy in possession. A foul near midfield gave Rutgers a set piece, of which they took full advantage. Rutgers forward Ryan Peterson beat sophomore goalie Andrew Verdi with a well-placed header off a cross from 40 yards out.
Michigan went into the half up 2-1, outshooting Rutgers 12-6 in the first 45 minutes. But the Wolverines knew adjustments still had to be made in the second half to regain momentum.
“It was a soft goal from our standards,” Daley said. “We talked about at halftime how we set the standard, not the opponent. If you don’t live up to it, it has to change.”
The Wolverines certainly responded to their coach’s challenge.
Rutgers had just three shots in the second half, and Michigan was able to tally another eight. The Wolverines pressed forward and both Zakyi and Atuahene had good chances, but it was the junior forward who put Michigan up by two just 11 minutes into the second half.
Atuahene was the best player on the field for the entire game. He tallied seven shots, including three shots on goal, and two goals in attack. His speed on the wing caused Rutgers problems all night.
“Both guys were really sharp. They started really lively,” Daley said. “They were deadly. They were effective, and they held the ball well.”
Added Atuahene: “We have a game plan every 24 hours before the game. We all relax and try to stay away from any distractions on campus. We focus and come back to the field and try to execute our game plan.”
Daley was pleased with the way his front three played all night, and he attributed that success to recovery from recent injury problems.
“We’re healthy in the front. All four guys were healthy,” Daley said. “I think those four guys on their day individually can carry the group, but collectively they’re certainly a handful. We were just too much tonight for Rutgers to handle.”
Michigan improved upon its best Big Ten start since 2013, moving into second and only one point back from conference-leader Maryland.
And as the pieces continue to fall into place only one year after a disastrous season, the Wolverines can’t help but enjoy it.
“It feels really good. It’s been awhile since we’ve been 4-1-1,” Atuahene said. “It’s good for the team, and it’s good for the fans. It’s exciting.”