One aspect of soccer that is often overlooked is moments of transition. These are the few seconds following a change in possession. They are often the time when the ball is the easiest to win back and hardest to keep. They can also be when a defense is most vulnerable because their players are set up to attack, not defend.
People tend to focus on what happens near the goals, as finishing and goalkeeping ultimately decide the final score. However, winning the transition moments consistently is how a team can dominate the game. The No. 24 Michigan women’s soccer team did just that in its 1-0 victory over DePaul on Sunday.
“It’s something that we have to work on every day within training, so when it comes to the game we’re able to execute,” Michigan coach Jennifer Klein said. “I think it’s a mentality, it’s a work rate that really puts us in a position to do that.”
After any of their own turnovers, the Wolverines consistently won the ball back within a few passes. When they didn’t, they ensured that they recovered their defensive shape quickly enough to avoid dangerous counterattacks.
Fifth-year senior midfielder Sarah Stratigakis recovered the ball multiple times, chasing down the Blue Demons and taking back possession for Michigan. Senior defender Janiece Joyner was also crucial to this process, particularly in stopping counterattacks. Any time DePaul tried to use its forwards as a quick outlet, Joyner was there to either intercept the pass or slow down the attack enough to give her teammates time to recover.
“It’s something that we practice,” Joyner said. “Our coach really trains us to win the ball back quickly and win possession.”
Winning the defensive side of transition helped the Wolverines keep a clean sheet, while the offensive moments won them the game. Joyner was also crucial on that side of the ball. After winning the ball defensively, she constantly found the first pass to keep the ball and start attacks.
“One of our goals is to connect the first pass once we get it back,” Joyner said. “If we are able to go we want to go quickly and create chances, but if not, we are totally comfortable with just holding it and swinging it around the back and waiting for the right time to go.”
Quick counterattacks led to some of the Wolverines’ best chances and, most importantly, the goal. The breakthrough came following a DePaul turnover in the midfield, followed by a quick pass down the wing before the ball eventually found its way to a wide-open fifth-year senior midfielder Nicki Hernandez at the back post to score. In the end, winning the game came down to winning the transitional seconds and translating practice sequences into the game.
“We build those moments into training,” Klein said. “There were sequences where we won it, we had players in right positions and we had players running, and I’m happy that we’re getting there.”