It took just 12 minutes for the No. 19 Michigan women’s soccer team’s (7-1-1 Big Ten, 12-3-1 overall) would-be statement win over its in-state rival to turn into a potential disaster. After the Wolverines got out to an early 2-0 lead in Michigan State’s DeMartin stadium, the Spartans (1-6-1, 8-7-1) tied the game with 15 minutes left to play.
“We just got a little sloppy and, I guess, complacent, at the fact that we were winning,” said fifth-year senior defender Sura Yekka.
But instead of letting 12 minutes dictate the rest of the game, Michigan snapped out of its complacent funk. Eleven minutes later, Yekka averted disaster for the Wolverines when a Spartan header, meant to redirect a goal kick to a teammate, landed at her feet. Splitting two defenders, Yekka sneaked the ball past the outstretched leg of Spartan goalkeeper Lauren Kozal and inside the right post to recapture the lead, 3-2, for good.
“Whenever we’re close in the box to finishing, our coach always says, ‘Right foot, right post’ and then ‘Left foot, left post,’” Yekka said. “It was on my right foot, so I hit the right post.”
After the match’s first 30 minutes, it seemed unthinkable that such late-game heroics would be necessary to leave East Lansing victorious. Michigan State was unable to counter Michigan’s aggressive pressure when the Spartans had the ball.
“Our game plan was to go out and just put full pressure on them, and just ‘Squeeze the life out of them,’ that’s the analogy that our coach used,” Yekka said.
Eight minutes in, two quick passes turned a turnover in the middle third into a scoring chance, and suddenly junior midfielder Nicki Hernandez had plenty of space in the Spartan penalty box. She centered the ball to freshman forward Hannah Blake, who sent a hard strike into the lower left corner for a 1-0 lead.
Sophomore midfielder Meredith Haakenson extended the lead to two just three minutes later with a header. Timing her run perfectly, she met sophomore defender Janiece Joyner’s lofted, bending pass just inside the goal area.
The Wolverines finished the first half with 14 shots — seven on goal — to Michigan State’s five (one on goal).
“We’re more confident when we’re a team that goes out and presses and dictates right away,” said Michigan coach Jennifer Klein. “I think that’s where our group thrives.”
The tenor of the game changed dramatically in the 63rd minute when the Spartans beat junior goalkeeper Hillary Beall off a corner kick to cut the Wolverine lead in half.
The equalizer came 13 minutes later — Michigan State forward Paige Webber eluded freshman forward Jayde Riviere, who had been tasked to play defense deep in Michigan territory throughout the second half. Webber’s soft touch was high enough that it passed over Beall’s outstretched fingers at the peak of her jump, even though she had timed it perfectly.
Despite the demoralizing goal, scoring chances reappeared for the Wolverines almost immediately.
“It’s sort of a bad habit we’re still trying to get rid of,” Yekka said, “but we tend to only turn things on when the pressure is right on us.”
When Yekka failed to connect cleanly with a cross from Hernandez that led her to the unprotected back post, it seemed like the last chance to retake the lead before overtime had evaded Michigan.
Yet minutes later, Yekka scored the game-winning goal, simultaneously redeeming herself and the team from brutal missed opportunities.
The Wolverines deserve credit for pulling it back together and salvaging a win, but Friday’s game is a good reminder before the postseason begins that complete efforts are tantamount to wins — anything else doesn’t lend itself to success.
“I think the big thing as we push towards the tail end of the season is maintaining (our) focus and discipline for the course of the 90 minutes,” Klein said.