In the 11th minute of the Michigan men’s soccer team’s match against Oakland, spectators saw graduate transfer forward Nebojsa Popovic fire a shot at Golden Grizzlies goalkeeper Sullivan Lauderdale. They saw senior forward Jack Hallahan bury the rebound in the back of the net, and they saw him run off celebrating.
But the most important part of the play came before that. Faced with a charging defender along the sideline, junior forward Umar Farouk Osman made a quick stutter-step that put his opponent on skates, creating space for a cross to Popovic to set up the goal.
The Wolverines’ (3-2-1) ability to maintain possession under pressure was vital to their 2-0 win against Oakland (3-2-1) at the U-M Soccer Stadium on Tuesday.
In the first half, Michigan’s ball-hawking attack forced the Grizzlies into mistakes and opened up passing lanes for the Wolverines.
“I thought we were real positive, I thought the forwards were really lively early on,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “And that caused their back four some problems.”
Those problems on the Oakland back line showed themselves again minutes after Hallahan’s goal. Catching the Grizzlies’ defenders out of position, senior defender Abdou Samake lobbed a perfectly placed ball up the middle to Popovic, forcing Lauderdale out of goal to challenge the Wolverine forward. Popovic struck the ball off one bounce, cheekily floating it over the keeper into the goal.
“If you can get the second balls and turn and face the game, Daley said, “ … we can always be a little bit dangerous.”
Once again, it was Michigan’s patience that created a scoring opportunity. Instead of forcing a pass through traffic that could lead to a turnover, the Wolverines’ midfielders cycled the ball around and waited for their opponents to slip up.
“The two central guys were really good,” Daley said. “(Sophomore midfielder Kevin Buca) picked up a lot of passes and (junior midfielder Marc Ybarra) dictated the tempo of the game, and I thought those things helped us stay on the front foot.”
In the second half, Samake anchored a Michigan defense that completely stifled Oakland’s attack. When the focus shifted from creating offensive opportunities to controlling the game defensively, he and junior defender Jackson Ragen stepped up and used their physical presence to keep the ball away from the Grizzlies’ attackers.
“I think our fullbacks do a really good job getting balls to feet,” Daley said. “They balance each other really well. Both are really physically tough, physically strong, high-level competitors … and they’ve been excellent.”