It was a low, cannon of a shot off the laces of redshirt junior forward Taylor Timko that kept Michigan in the game. Facing Nebraska (1-1-2 Big Ten, 7-3-2 overall) at U-M Soccer Stadium on Sunday, the Wolverines (2-1-3, 5-2-6) fought in a hotly-contested brawl, ending in a 1-1 tie after two, back-and-forth, sudden-death overtime periods.
On an indirect kick just outside the 18-yard box, Timko took her teammate’s tap in stride. The ball was a bullet, powerful enough to penetrate the scrum and catapult itself into the bottom left corner of the net, evening the match at one. The goal was not out of the ordinary for Timko, as it was her fourth on the season.
Michigan’s formation, though, was far from the ordinary. Lining up in a 5-4-1 configuration, the Wolverines worked to assert defensive dominance, win the ball, connect and counter.
And with Nebraska’s attack, a five-back formation was extremely beneficial. The Cornhuskers ran a three-front offense, highlighted by skillful strikers, all able and willing to take on their opponents one-on-one. Often, the outside midfielders would push up the wing and join the front line, as well.
“Nebraska is going to have a go at you,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “They’re going to take you on and dribble, and if you take them on one at a time, you’re going to get beat. In our formation, if they beat one, there were two Wolverines there to deal with them. And some of our players had never been in the back before, so it was all new territory.”
Fifth-year senior Ani Sarkisian, typically a midfielder or forward, found herself playing centerback at the starting whistle.
One reason for Sarkisian’s appearance in the back five was the sheer number of defenders injured. As a two-time captain, Sarkisian’s presence as a composed player and a steady leader was indicative to Michigan's success.
And after a three-game absence, Sarkisian’s presence was felt. In fact, it was the foul she drew that led to the Wolverines’ lone score.
“Our initial goal as a team is to not concede any goals,” Sarkisian said. “If you don’t concede any goals, it’s easier to get the one that counts to win the game.”
Unfortunately for the Wolverines, they were the first to concede a goal. Off a cross from outside the box, Nebraska forward Elise Huber finished with a header to the near post, taking a 1-0 lead 30 minutes into the game.
And though Michigan often held possession, building slowly and smartly from the back, the Cornhuskers completely dominated the shot total, tallying 25 shots compared to the Wolverines’ nine. Freshman goalkeeper Hillary Beall was a stalwart between the posts, boasting six saves on the day.
“She’s very steady,” Ryan said. “It’s hard to get a shot past her, especially when you’re shooting from deep.”
Beall only had to make one save during the 20 minutes of extra time, though, as her teammates came out ready to pressure.
“We said anyone can come out and dictate this game and it was our opportunity to change our minds and go out and change to momentum,” Sarkisian said. “I think we did. You could see we were way more up the field and getting better opportunities. It’s an in the moment type thing, and you really only need one opportunity to create something and score.”
And though the Wolverines weren’t able to find one final opportunity for the win, they left the pitch with one more point, and a lot of season to go.