EAST LANSING — Nearing the end of Sunday’s Michigan men’s soccer game against Michigan State, freshman forward Jack Hallahan sent a soaring cross into the box. The ball was knocked back and forth several times by Wolverine attackers, but eventually the Spartans cleared the ball harmlessly away — marking yet another time Michigan was close, but could not get the finishing touch it desperately needed.
The lone Spartan goal came eight minutes into the game, on a deflected header that landed right at the feet of Michigan State defender Brad Centala, who did not miss the golden opportunity to smash the ball into the open net.
From that point on, the Wolverines (0-3-0 Big Ten, 0-4-3 overall) played catch-up. They won the time of possession battle handily, controlling the ball for the majority of the game, tactically seeking their opportunity for the equalizer. But to the displeasure of the Michigan faithful who made the trek to East Lansing, that moment never came, and Michigan State (2-0-0, 5-1-0) took the game, 1-0.
The Wolverines showed patience in their style of play, which was countered by a fast-break style offense for the Spartans, who got most of their chances on quick rushes. However, junior goaltender Evan Louro handled the rest of the Spartan attacks, with the help of a shot off the post and a save by sophomore defender Marcello Borges.
It was up to Michigan’s controlled style of offense to strike back. The first half came and went with only one quality chance for the Wolverines, which came on a cross from redshirt junior midfielder Michael Kapitula with less than a minute remaining. Sophomore midfielder Robbie Mertz headed the ball on goal, but the Michigan State goalkeeper made his best save of the game, sliding to keep the Wolverines off the board.
“Down 1-0 early is always tough and you never plan for that,” said senior midfielder Brett Nason. “We had to be more attack-oriented and try to push numbers forward, and we’re going to give up a little defensively of course, but we have to get that goal back.”
To open the second half, the Spartans slowed down as Michigan pushed its offense. However, Michigan coach Chaka Daley points to at least five opportunities where the Wolverines could have put the ball in the net, but couldn’t break through.
Within the last 10 minutes, the Wolverines put forth a last-ditch effort to tie the game, but even moving a defender up and subbing in fresh legs didn’t help them convert. Ultimately, the Spartan defense fought off 16 shots and 7 corners, leaving Michigan wishing it had a couple of those chances back.
“Margins in college soccer are so slim,” Daley said. “You have situations where the ball is bouncing around the box, theirs goes in, ours doesn’t — that’s college soccer.”
Added Nason: “It’s not like we’re doing anything wrong. It’s just that luck hasn’t been on our side.”
On the final play of the game, with 15 seconds remaining, senior defender Lars Eckenrode found himself alone in the box as he juggled the ball to himself, and booted the ball on the net. The shot soared just high of the goal, and his impassioned scream of agony was echoed by the rest of his Michigan teammates as they watched the Spartans celebrate with the Big Bear trophy for the first time since 2013.
But the winless Wolverines still have faith in their abilities.
“Honestly, I don’t think we played poorly, so you can’t put your head down,” Nason said. “You can’t hide from it — you just have to come out next game stronger.”