The Michigan men’s soccer team had just 12 days to prepare for its season opener. So coach Chaka Daley tried to engineer as many challenges as possible.
Most exhibition matches for power conference teams are designed blowouts against far-inferior teams. Not for the 24th-ranked Wolverines, though. They played on the road at Cincinnati and Akron, both moves designed with upcoming games in mind.
The Bearcats’ field is turf like Omaha’s, one of Michigan’s September opponents. A mid-August day in southern Ohio is going to be hot, adding another layer of challenge. The Zips made the College Cup last year and return 10 of 11 starters, perfect practice for a team that plays in a conference with the other three College Cup finalists — Michigan State, Indiana and Maryland — and also has a matchup with Notre Dame, the squad that eliminated it in the NCAA Tournament last year. Michigan split the exhibition matches, winning 2-1 against Cincinnati and losing 3-2 against Akron.
“Very tactical in our approach to games, in the out of conference, certainly to play on the road, I think, was important for us,” Daley said. “So that’s why we played both of those games on the road. … I knew it would be hot and I think that's also a training situation, so environment, temperature, facility, the ground that you play on, all those things were very tactical, and Akron was simply, 10 of their 11 were returning from a team that went to the national final and I think if our group is to have ambition of equaling or doing better than what we did last year, we need to compete against teams like Akron and we want to see where we stood in the big picture early on.”
Daley wasn’t disappointed with the loss, though. Neither team was at full strength, with players out injured or simply resting. And as an exhibition, it was less a must-win game and more a chance to try out new players and combinations after losing six starters from last year. Forward Nebojsa Popovic, an Oakland transfer whom Daley believes will factor into the rotation this season, started both games and scored one of the goals against the Zips.
Along with Popovic, Daley believes forwards Derick Broche, a redshirt freshman who sat out 2018 with an injury and freshmen Christian Pulselli and Inaki Rodriguez, will add to the attacking depth — joining top 2018 scorers, senior Jack Hallahan and junior Umar Farouk Osman. Hallahan scored the second goal against Akron.
But perhaps the position most in flux is goalkeeper. Henry Mashburn, who started the last 28 games in goal for the Wolverines dating back to 2017, simply decided not to play this year, leaving two untested goalkeepers — senior Andrew Verdi and freshman Owen Finnerty — to take the reins.
“A big thing for our whole team, is we’ve been very big in the offseason of continuing to grow our depth in all of our positions,” Daley said. “So that, end of year last year we had (several players injured) going to the NCAA Tournament which really, for lack of better terms, hamstrung us going into the tournament and we were, we still fought hard against Notre Dame and gave ourselves a real chance to win the game … but certainly our lack of depth was, became a little bit of our issue at the end of the season. And while we're creating depth at the goalkeeping position, we're creating depth at all positions.”
It’s not just about figuring out who is going to play. It’s about chemistry and about trying different combinations of players to see who fits the puzzle. And though Daley says he still doesn’t have everything quite figured out, he enjoys the challenge of putting the pieces together. It freshens him up.
The Wolverines have a gauntlet of a schedule this year, playing four ranked teams and two other that received votes. But for now, Daley isn’t focused on that. Instead, he’s locked into the task at hand: the season opener against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday and continuing to perfect the new look of a young team.
“We’re still very young, we’re still growing, and we’re learning, because leadership lost, obviously, is not something you can obtain in 12 days preseason,” Daley said. “That’s something that happened over many, many years for the past leaders within our group. … Now we need to tighten up our mentality and our game management, and when I say game management, that's goal up, goal down, time and score, those kind of things, so we need to tighten up some of those things along with just continuing to get better and integrate the new players into the group and see if they can help with the depth.”