Crowded into the north end of the stadium, the crowd lived on every kick of the ball. One mistake and the season would be over. Amidst the white of a snow-covered field, there was a man dressed in orange standing over a white ball, staring down a man dressed in yellow. Twelve yards between them and no one at the stadium was breathing.
Fourteen rounds of penalty kicks took place on that snow-covered field Thursday night in order to decide a winner in the first round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament. Michigan (13-5-2) outlasted Princeton (10-6-2) to win the 1-1 game, 11-10 on penalty kicks.
The game could most easily be described by the first minute. A through ball lofted over sophomore defender Jackson Ragen skipped along the snow with the Tigers’ Jeremy Colvin closing in. Wolverines’ sophomore goalie Henry Mashburn, dressed in yellow, came off his line — sliding to clear the ball out of bounds.
Throughout the game, Mashburn was forced to come out of his box, sometimes kicking the ball — sometimes kicking the player. The Wolverines had difficulty clearing the ball from their side of the field, and three minutes in it nearly cost them. The headed clearance from a free kick only made it as far as a Princeton player, who found his teammate for a wide open shot. Mashburn, though, appeared out of nowhere as he tipped the ball inches past the post.
In the 39th minute, though, Mashburn could not make another miraculous save. Off a Wolverines’ corner, the Tigers passed and ran around every obstacle. The final pass from Kanzi Belghiti went straight to the feet of Benjamin Martin, who slotted it low and hard to the far post to put Princeton in front.
The Tigers’ success could not only be attributed to mistakes from Michigan, but also from creating their own chances. A threat throughout the night, Princeton counter-attacked with pace. Often with equal numbers as the Michigan defenders they faced, this led to countless chances, that included their goal.
The Tigers were also faster than Michigan. Within milliseconds of a Wolverine getting the ball, at least two defenders somehow found their way to his back.
“We thought we had them prepared mentally,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley, “but Princeton was really good in the first half. They were all over us, they were locked in. They put us under pressure. They created chances, got the goal, and we had to challenge our guys during halftime. Just to step up and compete.”
Compete they did. Not just with speed or talent, but with toughness. There were 46 fouls in the game — and there could have been more. Frustrated with the players, the referee started to talk back. In one instance, junior forward Jack Hallahan raised his arms in confusion at a foul, wondering why it was called. Responding in kind, the referee raised his hands, his mouth making out the word “What?”
The Wolverines, though, benefitted from the fouls, only committing 19 to the Tigers’ 27. The scales ended up balanced in the end because what they lacked in fouls they made up for in yellow cards: Michigan had six while Princeton had two.
Lost in the midst of these were several pushing and shoving matches with elbows, hands and legs being thrown at each other. Hallahan threw a hand at the face of Benjamin Issrof. Jeremy Colvin, from Princeton, suspiciously left several players on the ground away from the ball. In all the chaos, perhaps it was a miracle there were not any red cards.
“It being the first round of the tournament, I feel like is the hardest,” said senior forward Noah Kleedtke. “This is do or die, your season is on the line. This was a battle out here tonight. I’m glad we made it through on the winning side.”
Kleedtke scored the tying goal with 15 minutes left in the game. Chasing down the ball, back facing the goal, he controlled it and turned. His touch, though, left the ball just out of his reach, so he slid. The errant shot left him on the ground, but the ball was in the air as it brushed just past the Princeton goalkeeper’s fingers and into the side netting
Both goals were scored on the north end of the stadium. In fact, every time a ball hit the back of the net, it was in the north end. That was where the 14-round shootout happened and Mashburn came up with three do-or-die saves, everything on his back.
“Honestly I’m not the best at (penalty kicks),” said Mashburn, “and I’ve known that for a long time. I just went to the side that I believed he would go to.”
On the snow-covered field, Mashburn guessed right. For the final game-winning save, he dove to his right, getting one hand on the ball, pushing it into the crossbar and out. His first time playing in snow, the Floridian came up clutch.