When the Michigan women’s soccer team took the field against Bowling Green on Friday, its starting lineup had only one thing that it noticeably lacked:
Of the Wolverines’ 11 starters, three were juniors, four were seniors and another four were either graduate students or fifth-year seniors. And from the way Michigan dominated the Falcons en route to a 3-0 victory, it’s clear that this leadership is central to the team’s success.
Every facet of the Wolverines’ lineup is anchored by experience. On offense, Michigan was led by senior midfielder Meredith Haakenson and fifth-year midfielder Nicki Hernandez. Defensively, senior Sydney Shepherd and junior Jade Riviere stymied the Falcons. Even in the net Michigan had experience with fifth-year senior and four-year starter Hillary Beall posting a clean sheet.
From the game’s opening kickoff, the result never looked in doubt. Not only did the Wolverines outshoot, out-muscle and outscore the Falcons in what would be a physical opening to the NCAA Tournament, they flat out out-played them as well. Michigan was the aggressor throughout the entire game. Offensively, it dominated possession, playing the vast majority of the game in Bowling Green’s territory and constantly threatening to put the ball in the back of the net. Defensively they were stifling, holding the Falcons to five shots, none of which were on target.
The poise that the Wolverines played with on Friday stems from experience, and that experience is part of what separates this team from past iterations of itself. They play like a team who has been here before — because they have. All 11 of the Wolverines’ starters were members of the 2019 team that suffered a crushing overtime loss in the Big Ten Championship and made it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. And it is precisely the experience that they carry with them that propels them to victory.
“To have that experience is unbelievable,” said Michigan coach Jennifer Klein. “It’s so valuable to have players that know what to expect. They’re not going to get rattled under pressure or when dealing with adversity.”
This Michigan team isn’t one that gets nervous, or at least it doesn’t play like it, something that came through in Friday’s game. Defensively, the Wolverines didn’t stutter. They didn’t make unnecessary passes, they didn’t cough up the ball in dangerous situations and any time the Falcons approached the net, they didn’t shy away from making tackles in their own penalty box — because they have been there before.
“Their composure has been great,” said Klein, speaking of the defense. “They start our play for us, and they did a very, very good job tonight.”
Offensively, the experience and confidence of the Wolverines was equally apparent. On all three of their goals, the Wolverines played meticulously and with patience. When Haakenson opened the scoring in the 18th minute, it was the result of three straight crosses into the Falcons box off of a corner. When Hernandez stormed down the left side of the field and into a one-on-one situation with Bowling Green’s goalkeeper in the 59th minute, she took the time to cut to the left at the last moment before firing the ball into the top-left corner of the net.
The Wolverines play with the confidence and composure of veterans, and this makes every player on their team better — underclassmen included. In the 77th minute, Haakenson would once again take the time to create a better opportunity for her team, and it once again resulted in a goal, this time for sophomore forward Kacey Lawrence’s third goal of the season.
With Michigan’s 3-0 victory, it keeps its title hopes alive. As the Wolverines continue their tournament run, experience will be necessary.
Shepherd explained it best:
“We’ve gone through this before, we know what it’s like.”