It doesn’t take much to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Men’s Soccer Tournament. Of the nine teams competing in the conference, eight will make the postseason, meaning a group does not need an impeccable season — or even an average one — to qualify.
But after a 2-1 loss to Rutgers (7-3-5 overall, 3-2-2 Big Ten) Friday night, the Wolverines (4-8-3, 1-5-1) failed to add to their four conference points. Now, they are faced with a potentially distressing fate: the possibility of ending in fruitless ninth place, left out of the single elimination contest and ending their season in embarrassing fashion.
“Since (the current coaching staff has) been here, we have always been in,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said. “So this is uncharted territory for us based on the culture we created.”
Unhelpful in Michigan’s quest for the much needed points was the absence of fifteen players — including starting goalkeeper Hayden Evans, senior midfielder Inaki Rodriguez and sparkplug freshman forward Nicholas Cassiday.
It did not take long for the Scarlet Knights to capitalize on the holes in the Wolverines’ starting eleven and enter the scoring column. Fourteen minutes in, Rutgers forward MD Myers headed a looping cross from Thomas Devizio into the top left corner to give his team a 1-0 advantage. Myers leads the Big Ten in goals and has now scored in six straight contests.
Daley declined to comment on the reason for the absences but noted that the depleted roster necessitated some adjustments.
“It changes the game a little bit,” Daley said. “ … But even with the group we had I think we still had enough to create opportunities and try to find a way to win the game.”
The Wolverines did create many opportunities for themselves, outshooting the deeper and more talented Scarlet Knights by four and generating three more corner kicks — the fifth time this season the Wolverines have outshot their opponent and not won the match. In the 17th minute, off a throw-in from fifth-year defender Declan Gaffney and an assist from senior defender Brennan Callow, freshman forward Nick Kaloukian netted the equalizer for his third goal in as many games.
“After (Rutgers) scored … we were still on top of the game,” Daley said. “We created chances … hit the post, hit the crossbar. We really had them under for a good period of the game.”
But the solitary goal wasn’t enough for Michigan in a game where a tie would have done wonders for its conference tournament hopes. In the 53rd minute, Rutgers forward Ian Abbey rifled a shot from the right side of the box past the diving hands of junior goalkeeper Ethan Wood and into the far corner of the net, breaking the stalemate and sealing the victory for the Scarlet Knights in their last home game of the year.
Michigan currently has four points in conference play, and one more game against 6th place Penn State to add to that total. Wisconsin (4 conference points) and Northwestern (2 points) — the two other teams yet to clinch a spot in the tournament — were undoubtedly encouraged by the Wolverines leaving vital points on the field. Michigan is currently slotted in the eight and final spot, but the Badgers and Wildcats both have a pair of conference contests to potentially keep them out.
After a hollow trip to Piscataway, the Wolverines need a beneficial result against Penn State to ensure that doesn’t happen.