Once the outcome was decided, Western Michigan poured onto the field and sang their fight song at the top of their lungs. The fight song was appropriate in more than one way on Thursday.
On a night where 20 fouls were committed, neither team pulled any punches both on and off the field. The Michigan men’s soccer team (6-4-3 overall, 2-1-2 Big Ten) fell to 2-1 to Western Michigan (9-4-1 overall) .
The Wolverines struggled in the first half against the Broncos’ high press, as the opposing side scored within the first minute. With senior forward Jack Hallahan out due to injury, the Wolverines lacked the creative spark to break down the opposition.
Western Michigan’s tall back line cleared everything Michigan crossed into the box, making it difficult for its front line to get shots on target. The game got choppy by the end of the first half as the Broncos committed four fouls and had one yellow card, a preview of what was to come.
“We let a half pass us by,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “We did ourselves a disservice by not being prepared for the energy they would bring. It wasn’t much of a soccer game which made it a lot more difficult for us, but we have to respond to those things.”
The Wolverines came out strong in the second half, scoring a 46th minute goal from graduate transfer Nebojsa Popovic. Freshman midfielder Harry Pithers played a one-touch pass high to the far end of the box to freshman forward Christian Pullselli, who headed it back to the center. Popovic met the ball and volleyed it home.
“You need some personality players to break them down and we have three that weren’t available,” Daley said. “It makes it difficult and we knew it would be a challenge because we know those guys can unlock the game.”
Forty seconds later, Western Michigan responded with a high-shot goal at the top of Michigan’s six-yard box. Then, the Broncos shifted the tenor of the game, committing 10 fouls in the second half. Whether it was swinging for the man, not the ball, or throwing elbows while going up for a header, the message was clear from the Broncos.
“It’s tough,” Daley said. “I think it should be sorted out by the officials.”
Michigan followed Western Michigan’s goal with a great scoring chance in the 51st minute. A low driven ball across the box came to Popovic, who shot it towards goal. But, Broncos goalie Isaac Walker came up with the save denying Michigan one of their best chances of the game.
“We’ve got to put it in the rear view mirror,” Daley said. “It’s a tough night for our group. We are disappointed we responded too late. We need to get back to the drawing board.”
Compared to Michigan’s six fouls, Western committed 14 by the end of the match. The Broncos switched to a more compact formation and stuck five players in their back line to further stymie the Wolverines. This gave Michigan no choice but to move 6-foot-5 senior center back Jackson Ragen up top and bomb crosses into the box. Elbows were thrown, fingers were pointed and a rivalry brewed.
“You have to respond, continue to play, and not get too emotional about it,” Daley said. I think our guys got a little bit too emotional. That’s a style or tactic for sure. We didn’t do a good job handling that.”