Second balls can decide a game. When a team lofts the ball up the field, possession often comes down to who can control the ball after the initial aerial duel. For the Michigan men’s soccer team, consistently losing these second balls affected all aspects of the game in its loss against No. 8 Maryland on Friday.
Defensively, the Wolverines entered the game planning to force the Terrapins to pass it long. They stayed in a mid-block to test the ability of Maryland’s defense to pass the ball around or over them, rather than giving up angles to pass through that come with a high press. Early on, the Terrapins had no answer.
“We withdrew (our pressure) to see if their center backs could break through us.” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said. “The only thing they could do was hit big balls, and they couldn’t get around the corner.”
Maryland tried to build out of the back, but this often ended with Michigan winning the ball easily near midfield. Senior forward Inaki Rodriguez intercepted passes and won the ball off Terrapin players numerous times throughout the first half. This paid off in the 32nd minute when Rodriguez intercepted a pass and drove forward, finishing with ease.
However, things began to change in the second half. Maryland started hitting the ball long and winning the knockdowns. Terrapins forward Stefan Copetti admirably contesting aerial duels, either winning the ball himself or forcing an errant header from a Wolverine defender. Copetti’s fellow forward Joshua Bolma was often fastest to the second ball, giving him possession high up the field and with space to either drive at the defense or recycle the ball for a better opportunity.
“(Maryland) was a little bit more direct (in the second half), and they put us on the back foot.” Daley said. “They were picking up seconds, and they had us a little flustered.”
The pressure from winning second balls created a flurry of shots right at the start of the second half for the Terrapins. Eleven of their 15 shots came in the second half, and they took the lead with a goal in the 67th minute. The goal came following a goalkeeping error, but it was the result of the sustained pressure that came from winning second balls.
The ability to win the second ball also allowed Maryland to play it long while still maintaining possession. This reduced the frequency of turnovers in the back and limited Michigan’s ability to create offense from its defensive pressure.
The Wolverines then resorted to hitting long balls themselves — hoping to win the second ball to create offense of their own. They occasionally were successful, but when they did win the second ball, they struggled to maintain composure and find the next best pass.
“We weren’t as confident on the ball.” Daley said. “We picked up seconds but then gave them away too quickly.”
In a tight game, losing the second ball on defense and failing to capitalize on offense limited Michigan, giving the Terrapins a close victory.
But with a few tweaks to defensive positioning and improvement on the passes after winning a second ball, the Wolverines can compete with anyone top Big Ten opponents. They proved as much against Maryland.
“I feel proud of the group, proud of their effort, their hunger.” Daley said. “We just have to stay positive and move in the right direction.”
As Michigan moves towards winning against the best, second ball victories will be part of the journey.