The context was perfect for a sports movie: An injured player returns to his team and scores the winning goal in front of his parents. In the Michigan men’s soccer team’s 1-0 victory on Saturday over Michigan State, that’s exactly what happened.
Senior forward James Murphy returned to the pitch for just the second time since Sept. 11 and led his team to victory. In the 24th minute, he headed a beautiful cross by junior midfielder Rylee Woods into the net for the Wolverines’ (3-2-2, Big Ten, 8-4-4 overall) only goal to defeat the Spartans (2-3-2, 8-7-2) in the Battle for Big Bear at U-M Soccer Stadium.
“(It) was a storybook ending for him to score the goal,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley.
Murphy, a native of Oxford, England, had the chance to play in front of his family for the first time in his collegiate career.
After playing for just 30 minutes in Tuesday’s match against Western Michigan, Murphy kept himself fit and active throughout the week in preparation for the Battle for Big Bear, playing 61 minutes in the victory. Since he is from a different country, Murphy adds a different perspective to the rivalry.
“I think that’s what makes it so cool,” Murphy said. “I don’t think there’s another game in college soccer like it.”
The Wolverines controlled possession and shots throughout the first half, outshooting Michigan State, 5-0.
“In the first half, I thought we passed the ball well, attacked well and defended really well,” Daley said. “We didn’t give them a sniff and got the goal we needed, and just battened down the hatches in the second half.”
In the second half, the Wolverines maintained the lead with smart play and a controversial call in their favor.
In the 78th minute, Woods appeared to have used his hands in the penalty box, but the referees did not blow the whistle, much to the disappointment of Michigan State’s players and coaching staff.
Michigan was missing its leading scorer, freshman forward Francis Atuahene, because he received a red card in Michigan’s scoreless draw Tuesday. Freshman defender Marcello Borges, who tore his quadricep minutes before game time, did not take the field either.
In their places, senior midfielder William Mellors-Blair and junior midfielder Tyler Anderson stepped up to lead the Wolverines. Anderson led the team in shots with five. Mellors-Blair crossed in a shot from Anderson but was blocked on a great save from Michigan State goalkeeper Zach Bennett in the 29th minute.
Michigan’s defense continued to shine, picking up its fourth consecutive clean sheet.
“(We focused on) mindset and the approach,” Daley said. “Defending takes time because of the partnerships. We’ve really worked on their mindset, because team defending helps us win games. If we don’t have those kinds of performances, we don’t win games.”
For both Murphy and Daley, the game had significant meaning, as Murphy was Daley’s first recruit as the Wolverines’ head coach.
“James Murphy has scored every big goal for this program since I’ve been here,” Daley said.
Murphy understands the significance of not only this last season but also of this rivalry game. He won the game in his freshman year, junior year and now in his senior year.
When he scored the goal, it added more icing to the cake.
“I think I just blanked out,” Murphy said. “I ran over to my family, gave them a little wave, and I just kinda blanked out.”