The Michigan soccer team was sputtering offensively Saturday against Omaha until freshman striker Mohammed Zakyi turned the match on its head.
With the Wolverines down 1-0 in the 60th minute, freshman midfielder Marc Ybarra launched a free kick. His in-swinging cross over the top of the Omaha defense found Zakyi, who was able to sneak behind the Maverick back line to place a diving header to the left of goalkeeper Joseph Ghitis and knot the score at one.
“(Zakyi’s) a smashing young player,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “We’re excited to see his growth as a footballer. He’s a natural center forward, he scores goals.”
Forty-five minutes later, with Michigan locked in a tight overtime battle, Zakyi played the hero again.
Daley drew up the same play, with a nearly identical result. Ghitis thwarted Zakyi’s initial header, but the freshman’s relentlessness paid off, as he arrived first to the ensuing scramble and slotted the ball past the flailing Omaha defenders to give the Wolverines a 2-1 victory.
“In practice, we work on free kicks a lot because in college, it’s really hard to (score from) through balls,” Zakyi said. “With free kicks and corner kicks it’s really important to just put your body on the line and (the second goal) was really scrappy, I just put myself on the line because it’s for the team.”
Michigan’s scoring troubles were on full display in the first half of Saturday’s match, as it was unable to find holes in the Mavericks’ defense, relying on ambitious long-balls and crosses to try to equalize after Omaha’s opening goal.
Success hasn’t come automatically to Zakyi in his first season in Ann Arbor, either. After scoring 10 minutes into his college career in the season opener against William and Mary, he missed nearly a month with an injury.
After being eased back into play following his return, he regained his starting role five matches ago against Oakland and hasn’t looked back, tallying four goals and three assists since then.
But Saturday was his best performance yet, signaling the completion of his transition to the college game.
“In high school, I (was able to) carry the ball a lot and dribble through players,” Zakyi said. “But in college, everyone is really physical … so you have to work extremely hard.”
While the increased physicality may have affected Zakyi early in the season, it is clear he has adapted, as his ability to win an aerial challenge with the Mavericks’ keeper caused the ball to fall to him for his match-winning goal.
The two goals were not his only contributions, as he repeatedly challenged the Omaha defense in his 67 minutes — both with dangerous balls into the box and runs behind the Mavericks’ backline. He nearly ended the match in the first overtime, narrowly missing with a right-footed shot from a tight angle after controlling a long ball and beating a defender one-on-one to get through on goal.
“Coming in as a freshman and playing against bigger guys. … They think that I’m going to be really weak and that I won’t be able to fight hard,” Zakyi said. “My team captain, (senior center back Billy Stevens), he’s really inspirational and he tells us we can do anything. (He) keeps me going no matter what so I think Bill has been an inspiration to me, making me play very well today.”
Saturday’s performance was just the most recent chapter in Zakyi’s young college career. With his confidence growing, and new heights seemingly being reached in every match, Zakyi’s continued success will be crucial for the Wolverines going forward.