With the No. 19 Michigan women’s soccer team allowing 16 shots in the first half, Illinois established control over the game from the get-go. With all the momentum in the Fighting Illini’s favor, the Wolverines’ defensive lapses left the team relying on Michigan senior goalkeeper Stephanie Sparkowski.
However, one person can’t carry an entire defense to a victory — and that showed in this matchup.
Coming off of a win over No. 18 Northwestern, Michigan (6-2-2 overall, 2-1-0 Big Ten) traveled to Champaign to play Illinois (5-3-2, 1-1-1) and attempt to extend its six-game win streak to seven. As Illinois took control of the game, though, the Wolverines failed to recover in a 2-1 loss.
From beginning to end, the game was uncharacteristic for Michigan. The Illini controlled almost the entirety of play, and the Wolverines’ offense created few opportunities to capitalize on. Despite having strong players up top, the ball rarely met their feet — due in part to a lack of connection with the defense.
“(Illinois was) the better team today,” Michigan coach Jen Klein said. “We didn’t have the energy and sharpness to our game today, and Illinois punished us for that.”
Opening the first half, the Wolverines’ defense was forced into submission as Illinois forward Makala Woods found one opportunity after another on goal. Her fast and tactical play inhibited Michigan’s defense and forced multiple one-on-one moments between her and Sparkowski that, typically, met Sparkowski’s gloves.
But with 25 minutes left in the half, Woods’ sixth shot inevitably ended up in the back of the net, just out of reach of a diving Sparkowski. Following this goal, the Wolverines regrouped with an increased aggression as defensive players pushed up toward the offense to generate possible shots. This momentum, however, was short lived. Within a few minutes, Michigan reverted back to its original slow, loose touch play.
Not even eight minutes later, Illinois produced another chance on goal in the form of a penalty kick. For a second, the Wolverines breathed a sigh of relief as Sparkowski saved the kick, diving left and batting it away from the net. But, instead of clutching onto the ball, it deflected and landed right at Illini forward Sarah Foley’s feet, and no defender or Sparkowski was in the right position to stop Foley as she shot and scored into the right corner.
“(Sparkowski) made the first save on the PK,” Klein said. “So it was unfortunate that we didn’t have enough people trailing in there to help with the second.”
As the first half rounded out, Illinois recorded six corner kicks and 16 shots compared to Michigan’s zero and five, respectively. Down 2-0, things were not looking good for the Wolverines. Going into the second half, Klein needed to motivate her team.
“We knew that the first half was not our best performance on both sides of the ball,” Klein said. “So (I was) trying to get back to being confident that if we can do what we’re capable of doing, we put ourselves in a good chance.”
Unfortunately for Michigan, that confidence didn’t shine through and the second half was more of the same. Although the Wolverines had more opportunities, they were still being dominated by the Illini offense. Illinois’ offensive press tested the Michigan defense and revealed cracks in its ability to transition. The majority of the Wolverines’ possession was spent in their defensive third, where they were often unable to redirect and push the pace up the field.
Michigan had a few early opportunities in the second half, but they did not require much defensive effort for the Illini. Multiple shots either hit the crossbar or sailed over the top of the goal.
In the 86th minute, though, the Wolverines finally capitalized on a shot opportunity. Junior forward Syah Mangat shot a free kick into the box from 40 yards away and sophomore midfielder Abby Zugay — a transfer from Illinois — headed the ball, sending it into the right corner of the goal and making it 2-1.
“We were being a little more aggressive within our play and a little bit more direct,” Klein said. “ … (Zugay’s) ability to fight and get a goal was huge.”
However, with Michigan’s defense allowing double the shots on goal, nine corner kicks, and a stronger aggression on offense, the conditions were perfect for the Illini to take down the higher-ranked Wolverines.
“We just have to do better,” Klein said. “ … Our attack needs to just continue to find ways to be more imposing in the game, generate a bit more. I think by doing that, it will open up and allow for us to be more of an aggressor in the game.”
Despite these attacking struggles, the true nail in the coffin was the defense. Drives start from the defense, and if the defense can’t maintain and push its possession, the offense won’t score. For Michigan, finding its defensive identity is vital.