A five-hour delay resulted in a 6 p.m. kick off for the Michigan men’s soccer team, but an under the lights matchup at U-M Soccer stadium was the perfect environment for a squad that looked anything but sluggish.
Michigan faced Northwestern on Sunday night in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals and earned a 4-1 win.
Despite having played the day before, the Wildcats (1-8-0 Big Ten, 6-11-0 overall) came out with more energy than Michigan (7-1-1, 12-4-2). Northwestern put considerable pressure on the Wolverines and forced errant passes from the Michigan defense. While Michigan reestablished themselves going forward and did manage to earn a few set pieces, the Wildcats registered the only shot on goal through the first 15 minutes.
But in the 23rd minute, junior forward Francis Atuahene netted his sixth goal of the season.
Atuahene capitalized on a long throw from senior right back Billy Stevens. Stevens’ throw managed to evade every player in the box until Atuahene pounced on it at the back post. His low, powerful shot gave the Northwestern goalkeeper no chance as the Wolverines took a 1-0 lead.
Northwestern responded well after the goal and came very close to equalizing off a pre-planned set piece, sending the ball just wide of the Michigan goal post. Through 30 minutes, the shots were tied at five and each team registered two shots on goal.
The Wildcats had set piece after set piece and dominated the run of play heading into halftime, but the Wolverines were able to hold on to their slim 1-0 lead.
“We weren’t playing according to what we wanted to do,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “We were more aggressive in the second half and more competitive. It resulted in four goals because we had them a little more stretched.”
Northwestern came out riding the momentum they gained toward the end of the first half and equalized five minutes into the second. A clearance from the Michigan defense off a free kick was kicked back in the 18-yard box by the Wildcats. Midfielder Tommy Katsyiannis fired a well-placed shot to the far post to beat freshman goalkeeper Henry Mashburn and tie the game at one.
Northwestern’s confidence seemed to grow until, against the run of play, the Wolverines regained the lead. A good tackle from a Wildcats defender sent the ball to the feet of sophomore forward Jack Hallahan. Hallahan took a touch and curled a ball from the right side of the 18-yard box to the far post. Northwestern's goalkeeper didnt have a chance, and Hallahan had a wonder goal to his name.
And after retaking the lead, Michigan never looked back.
Eighteen minutes into the half, a long ball from junior defender Marcello Borges was brought down excellently by junior midfielder Robbie Mertz, who deftly finished the move with a left-footed shot back across goal to extend the Michigan lead to 3-1.
And with 11 minutes left, Hallahan tallied another. A well-weighted, cross-field pass from Atuahene sent Hallahan all the way to the goal line where the sophomore calmly dribbled into the box and slotted the ball into the back of the net.
“I think after the first goal I was really starting to feel confident,” Hallahan said. “When I cut in for the second goal I saw the net open, and I thought, ‘Why not try it?’”
And really, Hallahan's why not approach Sunday night could summarize the Wolverines’ season. The team has already won the regular season title and that’s given them the confidence to go for more. And for once Michigan is controlling its own postseason destiny.
“I think now that we’ve won the Big Ten we know we have the potential to win a lot more,” Hallahan said. “We’re going to really go for it and we’re going to see what we can do as a group.”