Due largely to a list of injuries that seems to only grow, not much has gone as expected for the Michigan women’s soccer team this season.
Sunday’s game at Wisconsin was no exception — but for a different reason.
The Wolverines had fought Minnesota to an exhausting double-overtime draw just three days earlier, and took the field against the ninth-ranked Badgers in sweltering, 90-degree heat with five starters unable to play.
But Michigan (2-1-1 Big Ten, 5-2-4 overall) did the unexpected again, upsetting Wisconsin, 2-1, in overtime for its first victory over a top-10 team since 2014 — which also came against the Badgers.
After surviving being outshot, 39-7, by the Golden Gophers on Thursday, Sunday’s contest started much the same way. The Badgers (2-1, 8-2) took the first six shots of the game as the Wolverines attempted to absorb pressure with an atypical five-player defensive back line.
However, just as Minnesota didn’t score until the 76th minute, Wisconsin similarly struggled to break through. Despite a 12-2 Badger advantage in attempts, Michigan led at halftime, 1-0, thanks to sophomore center back Jada Dayne’s goal in the 37th minute.
“Our biggest strength was really great team organization and defending,” said Wolverines coach Greg Ryan. “They just didn’t give Wisconsin many chances. That took all 11 of them to do that.”
Added junior forward Reilly Martin: “We knew that we were going to have to defend for 90 minutes to keep this game close, and our back line really gave an unbelievable performance.”
The Badgers equalized when forward Dani Rhodes fired a penalty kick past Michigan senior goalkeeper Sarah Jackson in the 55th minute. However, it was around that point when the complexion of the game changed.
After Rhodes’ goal, the Wolverines took control, as they fired off nine shots and earned four corners compared to Wisconsin’s six and zero, respectively.
This shift was aided by Michigan’s defensive strategy of staying behind the ball and waiting for scoring chances on the counterattack. This style of play allowed the Wolverines to expend less energy than the Badgers, and eventually wear them down enough to gain the upper hand.
“We got stronger as the match went on and they faded as the match went on,” Ryan said. “Maybe they punched themselves out a little bit. They definitely didn’t have the same level of energy.”
This fatigue could be observed most in Wisconsin’s back line. In the late stages of regulation, Michigan carved out a number of terrific chances behind the Badgers’ defense. Martin missed a volley over Badgers goalkeeper Caitlyn Clem and redshirt sophomore midfielder Katie Foug couldn’t find an open net in the 89th minute.
But despite these near misses, it was clear that the Wolverines had momentum on their side heading into overtime.
“We knew once we got into overtime that we were going to finish the game and win it,” Martin said.
They did — and it was Martin herself who scored the winning goal in the 96th minute to finish off Michigan’s biggest win in years.
While youth and inexperience — the Wolverines started four freshmen against the Badgers — could have derailed their chances of an upset, Ryan credited the play of Cooper, Sarah Stratigakis, Nicki Hernandez and Samantha DeVecchi as key to the victory, calling their execution of the game plan “perfect.”
“It’s fabulous from a confidence standpoint knowing that you can put in a lot of young players to fill big shoes and they can do this well against a top-10 opponent,” Ryan said. “Confidence for those young kids is sky high, and confidence for the whole team is sky high.”
Cooper stood out in particular for her performance, as she started at a completely new position — outside back — on Sunday.
“She was outstanding all day,” Ryan said. “She got forward well and attacked well, she had a great chance to score a goal and she defended very well.”
Meanwhile, Stratigakis, Hernandez and DeVecchi impressed in the midfield as well, providing solid offense and defense for Michigan.
“You don’t expect three freshmen midfielders … to be up to the task against a top-10 team in the midfield,” Ryan said. “But they really, really held their own.”
Michigan now has four days to recover from a grueling two-game stretch and prepare to take on Iowa at home Friday. But after an unexpectedly successful road trip, there’s no doubt the Wolverines have earned the rest.