Every player on the Michigan women’s soccer team, no matter their position, is expected to play defense.
When their opponent possesses the ball, the Wolverines compress from the back line through the center attacker. Everyone on the field drops back in an attempt to defend collectively.
Against Ohio State on Thursday night, that effort was especially apparent. Even senior forward Dani Wolfe, who plays at the apex of the Michigan offense, dropped back significantly into the Wolverines’ defensive half when the Buckeyes pushed forward.
“For us, it’s about defending collectively,” Michigan coach Jen Klein said. “(It’s about) how we can be compact and collective in our defending. At times, it’s not always us pressing forward, but we might have to drop our attacking players a little bit deeper to help share that load and make the game a bit easier for ourselves.”
However, despite the compact nature of the Michigan defense, the Wolverines still struggled to play as a collective unit. They looked strong individually, ultimately sustaining a clean sheet in a scoreless draw, but they showed room for improvement as a complete defense.
“Individually, they all did a really good job,” Klein said. “I think we need to continue to grow to get better as a collective unit within the backs, but that takes time and that takes games and that takes experience.”
As Klein alluded to, the starting defensive line is still developing chemistry on the pitch. Fifth-year Margot Ridgeway, a transfer from North Carolina State, and freshman Aniyah League are both new to the team. Sophomore Tamia Tolbert and junior Sarah Bridenstine round out the starters on defense — neither of whom were consistent starters last season. Bridenstine has the most experience in maize and blue of the bunch, but the four of them lack ample time on the field together.
Klein has given them plenty of game time throughout the first half of this season, in an effort that should help to build their connection on the back line. Bridenstine, Tolbert and League played all 90 minutes on Thursday, the only players to do so with the exception of goalkeeper Izzy Nino. Ridgeway played 63 minutes in total, with senior defender Emily Leyson subbing in for the final portion of the game.
As it continues to establish chemistry, Michigan’s lack of conjunction on defense led to numerous chances and near-misses from Ohio State. The Buckeyes ended the night with 14 shots, six of which were on goal. One of the closest chances came in the 18th minute, when an Ohio State attacker dribbled through multiple Wolverine defenders before laying the ball off to forward Ella Giannola, who ripped off a shot that Nino denied.
“Sometimes it takes some scary moments,” Klein said. “But I think (the defense is) continuing to get better game by game and that’s all we can ask of them.”
The Michigan defense was ultimately successful against the Buckeyes, with individual performances proving to be enough in withstanding Ohio State’s attack.
But for a team that expects every player on the field to drop back on defense, meshing strongly as an entire unit is crucial, especially as the Wolverines continue to face high-powered Big Ten offenses.