Francis Atuahene set the bar high for all forwards on the Michigan men's soccer team after scoring a hat trick against West Virginia on Friday, putting pressure on his teammates to match his performance when the Wolverines took on Niagara on Sunday.
While the freshman forward continued to impress, it was his fellow wide attackers who followed his lead, as Michigan (2-1) was able to take down the Purple Eagles (0-4) in extra time, 2-1.
The Wolverines found success on the wings as Niagara failed to stop Michigan from moving the ball down the flanks the entire match. Of the 20 shots the Wolverines attempted against the Purple Eagles, a majority were created thanks to the runs and crosses made by wide attackers and fullbacks.
Michigan coach Chaka Daley started an experienced trio of forwards with redshirt senior Colin McAtee and senior William Mellors-Blair on the wing and redshirt senior TJ VanSlooten up top. The front line controlled possession and pushed Niagara back into the final third early on, but failed to find a finishing touch in front of goal.
With the team playing on short rest, Daley was forced to experiment with his wide personnel and turned to Atuahene and freshman defender Marcello Borges.
“We have some good, dynamic players who we can interchange in those areas,” Daley said. “(Playing one-on-one against Atuahene and Borges) can wear you down, so I think we have good depth in those spots to keep the pressure on the other team.”
Borges, who originally subbed on as a right back, proved impactful early on as he made aggressive runs at Purple Eagle defenders from his deep role. In the second half, he was moved forward and was successfully getting crosses into the box from his more advanced position.
“(Borges) is good enough to start on the team, easily,” Daley said. “We have two fullbacks who are physically imposing, but Borges is certainly good enough to start and will play a ton of minutes all season in wide areas.”
In the 71st minute, Borges’ hard work in the final third paid off when he connected with fellow freshman forward Ivo Cerda for the equalizing goal.
The two fullbacks currently starting in front of Borges were also key in Michigan’s dominance up and down the flanks. Sophomore defender Billy Stevens and junior defender Rylee Woods gave the forwards in front of them several quality chances while providing stout defense in front of the Wolverine net.
Woods frequently found himself making plays further up the field in his role as the attacking fullback. He was able to draw fouls and corners to give Michigan chances on set pieces that Woods took.
The dead-ball specialist ended the prolonged match when he found senior midfielder James Murphy’s head off a free kick for the sudden-death winner.
“I had a good position on the free kick, put a good ball in and we scored,” Woods said. “It’s my job to get up and down the field and provide good service, and I think I had a pretty good day of that with my position on the free kick being the best.”
While it was a set piece that proved to be the difference, the Wolverines showed that they have the depth on the flanks, and are hopeful that in the future, a lot more of the chances created will end up flying into the back of the net.
“It’s great for people like me and the other central guys because we have so many good attacking wide players,” Murphy said. “The way they all stepped in today when they were asked to was real pleasing.”