With about three minutes left to play, freshman goalkeeper Owen Finnerty dove out from his near post to cut off a low cross into the box. The crowd roared. The radio announcer’s voice grew excited as he finally got to commend the keeper on his first collegiate save.
In fact, Finnerty’s effort was not a save at all.
The announcer’s misplaced excitement indicated the flow of Michigan men’s soccer’s 2-0 win against Michigan State on Tuesday night, as the freshman had zero save opportunities in his collegiate debut.
Finnerty certainly performed well, as he demonstrated good kicking ability and a keen awareness, but he couldn’t have asked for better support from his back line.
The defensive quartet of senior Abdou Samake and juniors Joel Harrison, Austin Swiech and Jackson Ragen played a stellar match, flowing as one cohesive unit en route to the Wolverines’ eighth clean sheet in 16 matches.
Michigan coach Chaka Daley was quick to praise his defense, pointing out that the team has only given up 12 goals through 16 matches, and that two of those goals were off penalty kicks and four came in the first match.
The defense matched the standard it has set for itself throughout the game. Michigan State barely mustered any offense in the whole match, repeatedly watching as any danger they created was cleared the second it materialized.
Such solid defensive play sowed benefits for the offense as well. While the Wolverines sputtered offensively at points throughout the match, the strikeforce benefitted from the freedom its defense permitted. Michigan enjoyed a substantial lead in possession because the defense forced turnovers so quickly.
“They’re rocks back there,” said graduate transfer Nebosja Popovich. “It puts other teams under pressure (when the defense plays very well). Because we’re so solid in the back we end up having more chances in games.”
Popovich and senior forward Jack Hallahan were the primary beneficiaries of the defense’s play. Each played an important role in applying the offensive pressure that resulted in Michigan hoisting the Big Bear Trophy after the final whistle blew.
Popovich took advantage of the few scoring chances that came the Wolverines’ way, netting the only two goals in the game: a goal off a chaotic corner in the ninth minute and a low, curling shot from outside the box 28 minutes later.
And although Hallahan was ultimately left without a goal or assist, the senior forward repeatedly charged at Michigan State’s wingbacks, creating a large portion of Michigan’s encouraging possessions with quick dribbling moves and timely crosses and leaving his footprints all over Tuesday’s match.
In what Daley praised as a “gritty and grindy” performance in a physical slugfest of a game, it is only fitting that the two offensive standouts immediately credited the defense for their success.
“We feel safe with them back there,” Hallahan said. “We know they can keep clean sheets, which is a nice feeling.”
Daley said that he told the offense at half that two goals was not enough, but even one gets the win when your the goalkeeper doesn’t face a shot.