The Michigan women’s soccer team has tended to play locally when it comes to preseason exhibition matches. The Wolverines have a strong record coming off the first week of training — winning four of their last five exhibition matches by outscoring opponents 17-3 in the last four seasons — allowing them to ease into the regular season.
This year, though, Michigan took an alternative approach and pitted its talent against the Big East and Atlantic Coast Conference. With fall camp beginning Aug. 3, the Wolverines had a quick turnaround to prepare for two of the top programs in the country in No. 6 West Virginia and No. 4 Virginia.
Saturday before the team’s media day, redshirt junior midfielder Ani Sarkisian, one of this year’s three captains, expressed excitement for playing some of the nation’s most competitive teams ahead of non-conference play.
“This is gonna be all in for those 90 minutes,” Sarkisian said Saturday. “We’ve only been training for three days, but we’ve had nine sessions already, so we’re all itching to have a little more competition than just playing against ourselves. It’ll be great to see how we compare to these teams, if we can keep up.
“If we can pull off a win or a tie, it would be really great for us confidence-wise as well.”
Monday afternoon in Morgantown, W.Va., the Wolverines earned that confidence boost by pulling out a hard-fought 2-2 tie against West Virginia.
With Michigan trailing by one goal with just 27 seconds left, redshirt freshman midfielder Katie Foug kicked in the tying goal to give the Wolverines a 2-2 tie.
Michigan had struck first in the 32nd minute with an upper-90 goal from senior midfielder Jessica Heifetz, but the Wolverines let in two quick goals shortly after halftime — one of which off a penalty kick.
“I was really proud of this young team,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan to MGoBlue after the game. “West Virginia’s just dangerous. … For us to hang in there, connect well, get chances in behind their line and then come away with a late goal to tie it 2-2 is really beyond what I expected for today.”
Thursday, Michigan will host a demon from its past: Virginia, the team that knocked the Wolverines out of the Elite Eight in the 2013 NCAA Tournament. This week’s matchup will mark just the second time the two teams have played each other. This time, however, Michigan has the home-field advantage.
For senior defender Madisson Lewis, another Michigan captain, this Thursday’s exhibition is personal. Lewis was the Wolverines’ second-leading scorer that season and was a starting forward in Michigan’s 2-1 loss to the Cavaliers.
“It’s gonna be really fun to play them at home and hopefully kick their butt,” Lewis said.
Wolverines without Timko, Yekka and Sweeney: Back in May, Ryan announced that Michigan would be without three critical players this season: junior defender Taylor Timko, redshirt freshman midfielder Kelly Sweeney and sophomore defender Sura Yekka.
Both Timko and Sweeney will be out due to knee injuries suffered in the spring season, with Sweeney reinjuring the same knee that kept her out of the 2015 season. Timko, however, may return late in the season, pending rehabilitation and approval of the team’s medical staff.
Timko has been a huge presence up front during the last two seasons, and led the team last year with seven goals and three assists.
As for Yekka — one of Michigan’s anchors on the backline — she will be training with the Canadian U-20 Women’s National Team in preparation for the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup from Nov. 13 to Dec. 3 in Papua New Guinea.
“Taylor, Sura and Kelly are tremendously talented players, and we will miss them, and will definitely feel their loss this fall” Ryan said in a statement this May.
Though the losses will present a new challenge for the team this season, Ryan noted that it will bring about opportunities for younger and returning players to compete for those vacant spots.
According to Lewis, the bench is as critical to the team’s success as those on the field, and she has no doubt Sweeney and Timko’s input will be heard.
“Taylor will be fine, she’s such a positive person in general. Same with Kelly,” Lewis said Saturday. “We have a very good support system as a team. We’re all there for each other whenever anyone needs it. I think we’ll be fine.”
Nike rings in new era of Michigan soccer: With last week’s unveiling of the new Nike and Jordan Brand apparel at the M Den, Michigan is welcoming a new era for its athletic program.
On Aug. 19, the women’s soccer program will be the first of Michigan’s 27 varsity programs to sport the Nike swoosh in a game.
“It’s pretty nice clothing,” Lewis Said. “We kind of joke, ‘Look good, feel good, play good.’ I don’t know, that probably plays into it a little bit. Our jerseys are really cool, we feel more confident… a little mental thing.”
Added Sarkisian: “You’re with a new company, you get all this new gear, you have all this nice stuff on, you better be playing well. … It’s really rallying the Michigan fans and starting a new era. It’s nice to know we’re the beginning of that, and we can have an impact on that and make history if we choose to.”