As the Michigan men’s soccer team stepped on to the pitch against No. 6 Creighton, the Blue Jays’ student section greeted their team with a drum cadence. The gesture was an introduction to an upcoming battle between the two squads, and when the first whistle blew, the 2015 season began.
The Wolverines fought through an increasingly physical match, but lost their opening contest to Creighton, 1-0, in Omaha, Nebraska on Friday night.
“We weren’t pleased with the result,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “But we were pleased with the performance. … I thought our guys competed as well as them. We certainly took it to (Creighton) and they had their big moments in the game and we had our big moments in the game.”
The grittiness of the match first came to light in the ninth minute, when the Blue Jays nearly scored off of a through pass to set up a shot on goal. Michigan junior defenseman Lars Eckenrode made a sliding challenge, knocking the forward off his feet to halt the early Creighton (1-0-0) threat.
The Wolverines’ first opportunity to score happened in the next minute, when freshman midfielder Francis Atuahene and senior forward William Mellors-Blair had the advantage on a counterattack. Mellors-Blair fell with no contact as Atuahene tore through the defense on his own, only to be stopped by Blue Jays goalkeeper Connor Sparrow.
Creighton, however, capitalized in the 30th minute, when forward Fabian Herbers blasted a shot past sophomore goalkeeper Evan Louro, who had little time to deflect the kick, putting Michigan down 1-0. In the next Wolverine possession, Herbers ran through Eckenrode, attempting to challenge for the ball. Eckenrode, not pleased with the act, got in Herbers’ face, and Herbers received a yellow card soon after.
The first half had its share of small scuffles, including players getting in each other’s faces after rough fouls and displeasure from fans when calls didn’t go Creighton’s way. In the second half, the intensity escalated. There match saw 37 fouls called, 13 on Michigan (0-1-0).
“That’s how college soccer is,” Daley said. “And another thing that fuels the match is that it’s in front of 5,000 people, their largest crowd ever in a home opener. It was physical, but it wasn’t nasty or over the top. It was certainly a competitive, physical game between two teams who wanted to win the game and both went for it.”
In the 50th minute, senior forward James Murphy received a yellow card after a Blue Jays player came down from a one-on-one challenge in the air with his hands over his head in pain. Players continued to compete for the ball during every possession, and in the 55th minute, that ferocity reached its highest point of the match.
Eckenrode and a Creighton midfielder battled each other to corral a ball heading toward the sideline. Once the ball ended up out of bounds, it wasn’t clear to either side who should have received the throw inbounds. Eckenrode quickly picked up the ball to toss it in play, but his opponent snatched the ball from him, having the same idea. Eckenrode became frustrated, and tossed the Blue Jays midfielder aside, without suffering the penalty of a yellow or red card.
While players pleaded with referees to blow the whistle on fouls, the referees, for the most part, let the game play on without much pause. Opportunities to score were few and far between, but Creighton proved itself more capable in pressuring its opponent on the offensive side of the ball.
The Blue Jays almost scored in the 65th minute, kicking the ball wide in a sliding effort with a wide-open net. In the 75th minute, Creighton slipped a shot by Louro and the crowd behind the goal roared in jubilation when the scoreboard showed 2-0. However, the officials ruled the goal scorer offsides, keeping the score 1-0. Six minutes later, Louro stopped another shot on goal, maintaining the Michigan deficit at one. He kept his team in the game, recording a career-high seven saves in the contest.
The Wolverines had one more chance to score before the final whistle off of a corner kick in the 85th minute. The cross into the box was on target, but the header by Murphy sailed over the goal, dashing Michigan’s last hopes of an equalizer.
Creighton had experience on its side on Friday. Its roster is laden with seniors, while the Wolverines are a younger team, with underclassmen playing a large share of the minutes. Daley was also proud of his younger team’s ability to remain poised and confident amidst the chaos.
“I was pleased with how quickly we adapted to the environment,” Daley said. “There’s going to be some bumps in the road going up and down because we’re younger, but hopefully we can play with some consistency and if we do that, I think we’ll be happier with our results.”
When the clock struck zero, fireworks flashed and echoed off in the distance. The Wolverines exited with a loss, but with heads held high, knowing that whole season still lies ahead after a valiant effort against elite competition.