Goalkeeper play is scrutinized in any soccer match — it’s especially magnified when an experienced starter is sidelined and two callow backups are tasked with replacing her.
That was evident when the Michigan women’s soccer team (5-4-2 overall, 0-2-1 Big Ten) lost to Nebraska (4-4-3, 2-1) 1-0 on Sunday afternoon.
The Cornhuskers were the more energetic and connected team throughout the contest, outshooting the Wolverines by ten and generating nine corner kicks. Over 70% of possession took place in Michigan’s defensive half, keeping the Wolverine defenders on their heels.
“Their aggression was better than our aggression,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “Because of that, … it didn’t allow us to really get into a good rhythm. The first half I thought we struggled a bit with their pressure. … I feel like we could have done a better job in those moments.”
It didn’t take long for Nebraska to turn that pressure into a lead. A mere seven minutes into the match — with fans still scurrying to find their seats — midfielder Sarah Webber buried a deflected ball into the back of the net, registering her fifth goal of the season and prompting a cacophony of “Go Big Red” chants from the visiting stands.
Michigan junior goalkeeper Stephanie Sparkowski ventured to the edge of the penalty box to deter the Cornhusker attack, but that left her susceptible to the subsequent rebound that ultimately was the difference in the match.
Perhaps inexperience played a role in the miscue.
Fifth-year goalkeeper Izzy Nino — this season’s starter after Hillary Beall’s departure via graduation — was unable to play in the contest due to a wrist injury. Backups Sparkowski and senior Katherine McElroy split time in the net, neither with more than 90 minutes of playtime in their collegiate careers. Klein gave no timetable for Nino’s return.
Trailing for 83 minutes of the match, the Wolverines spent most of the game on the offensive, desperately trying to find the equalizer to salvage a point on Senior Day. In the 15th minute, junior midfielder Kacey Lawrence one-timed a cross from senior forward Dani Wolfe, but the quick reflexes of Nebraska goalie Samantha Hauk knocked the ball harmlessly out of bounds.
In the 77th minute, a free kick from senior forward Hannah Blake nearly curved into the bottom left corner, but a lunging Hauk was able to get a mitt on it and force a corner kick.
As the minutes waned and the home crowd grew increasingly impatient, Michigan tried some tactical changes to alter the trajectory of the match.
“We switched into a 3-5-2 (formation), trying to have higher numbers up the field so we could press them a bit higher,” Klein said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t quite pay off.”
The switch in intensity was noticeable — but it was too little, too late for the Wolverines. Michigan was called offsides a puzzling six times, a frustrating development for the squad that erased promising opportunities and stagnated the attack at pivotal times.
“We have moments where we look fantastic, and then we have moments that we don’t. We are trying to find that consistency,” Klein said. “I hope we can also find ways to start the game with the way we end games. Come out with that … attention, intensity and intent from the very start.”
Klein will hope that when the Wolverines travel to Minnesota on Thursday, they’ll find that coveted consistency and attain their first conference victory of the season.