In the first half of its game against Rutgers, the Michigan men’s soccer team allowed eight shots — including two that found the back of the net. And in the second half, the Wolverines restricted the Scarlet Knights to just five shots and held them scoreless to aid a comeback win — encapsulating their defensive floor and ceiling in their first Big Ten win.
Just two minutes into the game, Rutgers began to push the pace, putting pressure on Michigan’s defense. A block by freshman defender Matthew Fisher, redirecting the ball out of bounds, momentarily stopped the Scarlet Knights’ offense but resulted in a corner kick for Rutgers.
As Scarlet Knights midfielder Curt Calov looped the ball into play from the corner, the Wolverines’ defense seemed absent. The ball quickly found Rutgers defender Erick Ruiz and with no Michigan player around him, Ruiz headed the ball towards the right corner of the net. A delayed reaction from freshman goalkeeper Isaiah Goldson translated into a goal. As the Scarlet Knights celebrated, the Wolverines looked visibly surprised by the play — their defensive lapse placed them in a deficit on nearly the first attack.
“Little bit of a slow start with the mistake on the corner kick, which stunned us all on the bench and in the team,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said. “It took us a little while to kind of recover and they scored the second one quickly.”
In the next few minutes, Rutgers continued to tally up shots while maintaining control of the game. After a pair of missed shots, the Scarlet Knights midfielder Jackson Temple swerved past Fisher and sophomore defender Nolan Miller for another open shot on goal in the 19th minute. With Fisher and Miller down on the ground and the ball at the back of the net, the Wolverines found themselves dug in their own hole.
And it wasn’t the first time. Throughout the season, Michigan has taken its time to settle into games offensively as most of its points are scored in the second half. Thus, it needs its defense to restrict its opponents in the meantime in order to find success. But just as the Wolverines have done in games against Creighton and Oakland, their defense can’t hold its ground for the entire game.
The first half against Rutgers wasn’t any different. Despite Goldson’s two diving saves to close the half, Michigan’s common defensive struggles were on full display. It allowed four shots on goal and three corners as the Scarlet Knights spent 16 percent of their possession in the penalty box and the Wolverines spent more than half of their possession trying to prevent Rutgers from extending the deficit.
With the defensive lapses plaguing Michigan’s game, it seemed the outcome might mirror the loss against the Blue Jays. However, entering the field in the second, there was a stark contrast.
“We supported them and told them that … the next goal in the game was the most important,” Daley said about his message to the team at halftime. “So we put our back four and goalkeeper under a lot of pressure to say, ‘Hey, you got to stand up and give us a chance.’ ”
And they did. Following the Wolverines’ first goal of the game and the possibility of a comeback on the horizon, Goldson — their last line of defense — rose to the task. A free kick from Calov in the 55th minute could’ve put the game out of reach, but as the ball approached the post, Goldson dove to his left and stretched his hands to make his third save of the game.
“Our goalkeeping core has been really good,” Daley said. “They have practiced or looked at that opportunity or save many times and I’m sure the goalkeepers are just as proud as Isaiah was to make that save in the heat of the moment. That helped us.”
As Goldson established himself in the net, the rest of Michigan’s defense followed suit — intercepting passes and redirecting the ball. And that redirection, with most of Rutgers’ players on its offensive end, proved to be crucial as the Wolverines’ offense took advantage of gaps to apply pressure and eventually tie the game.
Despite Michigan’s offense finding its flow, the Scarlet Knights kept pestering its defense. Unlike the first half, though, the defense didn’t take its foot off of the gas. In the 59th minute, with Goldson out of position, a shot from Rutgers midfielder Jason Bouregy could’ve shifted the momentum. But Miller, moving into the goal post, blocked the shot. And a couple of seconds later, another shot by Calov went right into Goldson’s gloves.
The Wolverines’ defense walked away from the second half unscathed — allowing zero goals and only one corner while recording three saves — and flashed its potential. At its height, Michigan’s defense can steer off any offense with a combined effort from its backline and goalkeeper and aid a comeback win. But at its nadir, it can be the reason behind the deficit in the first place.
The Wolverines escaped with a win despite their defensive inconsistencies. But if they want to find consistent success, the second half defense needs to become the baseline. Otherwise, they might keep chasing the high they experienced in their first conference win of the season but never catch it.