Heading into Friday night, the Michigan women's soccer team may have anticipated that Northwestern’s backline would give the Wolverines the most trouble.
The Wildcats’ defense had surrendered just five goals over the first 11 games of the season, and thanks to brick-wall goalkeeper Mackenzie Wood, seven of those games were shutouts.
On Friday though, Michigan's demise came at the hands of a rapid offensive onslaught, as No. 17 Northwestern (2-2-1 Big Ten, 8-2-2 overall) defeated the Wolverines in Evanston, 4-1.
A lot about Friday’s game was unusual.
For starters, Michigan (2-3-0, 6-6-0) outshot the Wildcats, 7-6, in the first half of the game — the same frame Northwestern saw all four of its goals scored. The Wildcats hadn’t scored four goals in a game in two seasons.
The first three goals came off corner kicks, as Northwestern jumped on opportunities when they were able to create set-ups and slow the game down.
“I think it came down to attention to details, and they capitalized on us,” said Michigan coach Jennifer Klein.
After a contentious first 10 minutes that saw somewhat sloppy play characterized by midfield turnovers from both sides, Northwestern began to differentiate itself.
At the 10:45 mark, the Wildcat players crowded the box on their first corner kick of the game, drawing the Wolverine defense inside. This left Northwestern forward Brenna Lovera open on the outside to smash the ball into the top of the net, opening up scoring in the game.
The Wildcats wasted little time, striking again under six minutes later. Northwestern capitalized on another set piece opportunity, this time with a header from defender Kayla Sharples, putting them ahead, 2-0.
Almost immediately, Michigan responded with smart passing up the pitch from senior midfielder Ashley Calcagno to redshirt junior midfielder Katie Foug. After fighting off a defender, Foug crossed the ball to sophomore midfielder Alia Martin, who sent the ball in to cut the Wolverines’ deficit in half.
“I think our ability to come back and score, we had great control of the ball in the run-up play, we moved it really nicely, creating good chances,” Klein said.
Over the course of the next 15 minutes, Northwestern tacked on two additional insurance goals — the first off yet another corner kick — running an efficient offense for a team primarily known as a defensive powerhouse.
By the 30-minute mark of the 90-minute game, all of the scoring that would happen had happened.
It wasn’t until the dwindling seconds of the half that Michigan regained momentum, crisply passing between midfielders and forwards in center of the pitch, but it was too late.
At halftime, the Wolverines knew they had significant work to do with a three-goal deficit.
“I told them (at halftime) I think we can come back and win 5-4 if we clean up details,” Klein said. “I think we were unfortunate to not get a goal in the half, but again, I thought we controlled a lot of play and really had the ball for the majority of the second half.”
And in the second half, Michigan was able to clean things up. The Wolverines made a series of defensive adjustments, such as not allowing the Wildcats to catch them in transition and not giving away as many corner opportunities—the detrimental flaw of the first half.
Michigan exuded confidence in the final 15 minutes of the game after a back and forth start to the second half. The Wolverines created five or six viable scoring chances, but were unable to convert on any, leaving the game’s score the same as it was at halftime.
Klein felt proud of her team’s second half appearance, noting that Michigan’s play didn’t necessarily reflect in the box score.
“I was proud of the team’s response in the second half to continue to fight and push, but we just were unfortunate,” Klein said. “It got close at the end, I told them that we needed to be a team that was okay doing some dirty work, and I thought we could come back and find a way to get a result. Unfortunately, we didn’t.”