An old adage in soccer says “games are won and lost in the midfield.” And after the first 45 minutes on Sunday, the Michigan men’s soccer team would have earned the win, at least according to the saying.
From the opening kickoff, the Wolverines dominated through way of their midfield. They had the lion’s share of the possession and were able to turn their dominance of the ball into early chances. However, this dominance faded after halftime as Wisconsin began to garner chances – it left the midfield dictating the 1-1 tie.
“We were outstanding in the first half,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said on Sunday. “We played really well, created chances, asked good questions of their team.”
Michigan’s ability to use its creativity in the attack was fueled by its strength winning the ball in the middle third of the field. This allowed the Wolverines’ midfield to move the ball into the Badgers’ half, generating pressure and chances.
“We were prepared to come out and try to get the ball, turn, and try to have possession in their half,” senior midfielder Simon Vazquez said.
Vazquez and his midfield partners – seniors Bryce Blevins and Quin Rogers – outnumbered Wisconsin in midfield 3 players to 2, using the advantage to their benefit initially. Twenty minutes into the game, freshman forward Alex Waggoner tested Badger goalkeeper Crockford from inside the eighteen, narrowly missing out on the game’s first goal.
In that case, Michigan’s offense was also its best possible defense. By controlling possession further up the field, the Wolverines pinned Wisconsin’s back line closer to its own goal. With the Badgers’ center backs unable to push forward and start attacks with their passing, their offense was neutralized.
“That’s the best way to defend, having the ball in their half,” Vazquez said. “You’re in possession and you have chances to score.”
Eventually Michigan turned its overwhelming control of the game into a breakthrough goal. Freshman midfielder Joao Paulo Ramos buried his shot into the back of the net with five minutes to go in the first half.
After the half, the Wolverines’ grip on the game faded. Their ability to win the ball lapsed, and Wisconsin took advantage.
“If we don’t energize to get the second balls, we can’t then play the football we want to try to play,” Daley said.
Failing to win contested balls at a high rate, Michigan lost the advantage its midfield’s dominance conferred on it earlier in the game. The Badgers’ defensive line controlled possession further up the field, allowing their defenders to play forward to wingers and strikers. By game’s end, Wisconsin would have 53% of the possession – even after its lackluster start.
“Their center backs played from where our coaches are,” Daley said. “In the first half, we noticed they were playing inside their 18.”
Eventually, the Badgers turned their newfound control into a chance – they broke through the Wolverines’ defenses and evened the game in the 61st minute.
The game ended in a draw, keeping Michigan firmly in contention in the Big Ten. However, the Wolverines have to wonder what could’ve been had they sustained their midfield play for longer.
When they won contested balls in the first half, players like Vazquez and senior midfielder Bryce Blevins dictated the tempo of the game. With possession of the ball in midfield, they both generated chances and stymied Wisconsin’s offense. Without it in the second half, Michigan let the Badgers back into the game and missed an opportunity to secure three points.
Because the game is won and lost in the midfield, so Michigan’s up and down performance led to the tie.