The result of the game hardly mattered.
The Michigan men’s soccer team (3-9-4) had already sealed its spot in the play-in game for the Big Ten Tournament. No performance against non-conference foe Oakland would change the heart-breaking results that have defined this season.
But Michigan coach Chaka Daley believes the Wolverines’ 5-1 victory over the Grizzlies will serve as a building block. Possibly a building block for a potential cinderella run in the Big Ten Tournament, or maybe the first brick in a late-season offensive renaissance. Or perhaps it could serve at the start of a foundation for the future.
Between sophomore midfielder Robbie Mertz, sophomore forward Francis Atuahene, freshman forward Jack Hallahan and others, Michigan has largely been reliant on underclassmen to carry the offensive burden. All three have logged over 1,000 minutes on the season. And while that has led to growing pains throughout the fall — the Wolverines came into the match with just 11 goals in 15 games — they may just be starting to reap the benefits of that young talent.
“We believe very much in Francis, Jack and Robbie,” Daley said. “Those guys are good, young players that are the future of Michigan soccer.”
Mertz looked dangerous all night, calmly weaving through defenders with crisp ball control, making pinpoint passes out wide and offering several chances on net. In the 20th minute, he found himself on the end of a cross into the box and deposited the ball through the keeper’s legs to open the scoring.
“I think we finally found a good spot for Robbie — in there centrally as a number 10 — and he does a great job for us connecting the game.”
Added Mertz, on his new role: “I played that all growing up, so I was hoping last year, and coming into this year, that would be something that I would get into in the future. They are starting to get more comfortable with me there, and I certainly like to play there. I have a lot of fun playing that position.”
Fellow underclassman Atuahene broke the 1-1 tie early in the second half, slotting home the goal after a shot deflected off the keeper.
It was the combination of Mertz and Atuahene that led to the highlight of the night, as Mertz found Atuahene on the edge of the box. From there, Atuahene did the rest, whipping his leg through the ball and bending the strike over the keeper’s outstretched arms, and adding an exclamation point to the long-awaited offensive outbreak.
“When you’re a goal-scorer, confidence is king,” Daley said. “(Francis) scored one, which was a little bit of a scrum, but the second goal is top-shelf. If we can get some confidence and get him going, get Jack going, get Robbie going, I don’t care who we play, to be honest.”
It’s that finishing talent that has been sorely lacking from the squad throughout the season. But the goal offered a glimpse into the team’s potential in the coming weeks and years. Young attacking talent abounds.
As the clocked ticked down Tuesday, the players joined together on the field, smiling ear to ear and exchanging handshakes and hugs. Try telling them the result didn’t matter.