As conference play ramps up, the Michigan women’s soccer team is in an uneasy position.
The Wolverines have struggled with a roster full of young and inexperienced players after losing six starters from last year’s team, and have gone 5-4-2 to begin the season. The team has lofty hopes of back to-back Big Ten Championships, but it’s going to take a total makeover to get there.
They haven’t admitted it yet, with half their schedule behind them, but this is a rebuild year.
However, they still have the chance to make it a successful one.
Throughout preseason, then No. 9 Michigan was confident in its ability to rework the starting XI around its underclassmen, which was no easy task.
“The expectations are still the same for this season,” senior forward Jayde Riviere said in April. “Nothing has changed in terms of our aspirations and goals.”
Those expectations can’t be the same without Riviere. The team is now missing another strong leader and captain who anchored the defense.
On Sept. 7, Riviere announced she had played her last game as a Wolverine after suffering a lower-body injury that will sideline her for the rest of the season. Riviere, an Olympic gold medalist, was unquestionably their best player.
But she won’t let her injury sideline her leadership role as a captain, too. She has tried to inject confidence into the players from the bench.
So far, however, that confidence hasn’t translated into tangible consistent results. Although confidence can help each individual athlete play at its best, it’s not enough to make them the powerhouse competitor they could have been.
But it’s not in Michigan coach Jennifer Klein’s nature to go down without a fight.
With less than half the season to go, matchups including three top-10 matchups looming and the injuries piling up, it’s going to be an uphill climb.
That’s not to say that Michigan doesn’t have the talent to reemerge as a contender.
Junior forward Kacey Lawrence and senior forward Lily Farkas have dominated in shots and points. Hustling up and down the pitch, they have generated opportunities wherever they can.
Sophomore midfielder Avery Kalitta has honed her craft on the backline, consistently protecting the net. Graduate goalkeeper Izzy Nino has hit her stride in goal, finally getting comfortable in her first season as a starter.
Against cakewalk opponents — a specialty of a relatively soft nonconference schedule — the Wolverines showed their immense promise.
Michigan beat then-No. 20 Washington State, slaughtered Central Michigan and mopped the floor with Toledo.
But now that the Big Ten competition has come pouring in, the Wolverines’ initial prowess has shrunk.
Individually, the team may be full of stars. But soccer is the ultimate team sport and without 11 athletes playing as one cohesive unit, wins are going to be few and far between.
Against Maryland, Ohio State and Nebraska, Michigan did not score. It kept the games close by only allowing one goal in each, but scoring production has been a clear impetus to its success.
That’s not for a lack of trying, though.
The Wolverines put up 18 shots in their tie to the Buckeyes with six on target, put up 11 shots with five on target in their loss to the Cornhuskers and 10 with four on target in their loss to Maryland.
“It kinda doesn’t matter what you do if the (opposing) goalkeeper is having a really good night,” Klein said after Ohio State. “It’s a bit unfortunate”
On the other side of the ball, the defense — for the most part — has been dialed in. In their combined six losses and ties the defense has not allowed more than one goal, keeping a potential comeback within reach.
It takes time for a young team to mesh. It takes time for a new team to learn each other’s playing styles. It takes time to create a championship-level team.
Eleven games should be enough for Michigan to hit its stride and work in perfect unison. A rebuilding year and success don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The Wolverines don’t have to be bottom dwellers of the Big Ten and they shouldn’t be, considering the program’s recent success.
And they’ll have a big opportunity to prove it, going up against three top-10 programs in its next three games.
For now, Michigan is an underdog.