After a dreadful 2022 season, the Michigan men’s soccer team has had plenty of time to think about the past — to contemplate all that went wrong this year and led it to miss the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history.
The Wolverines also have time to get excited about the future, especially with the recent news of forward Nick Kaloukian and defender Nolan Miller being named to the Big Ten all-freshman team.
But Michigan — and especially its coach, Chaka Daley — need to be careful not to fall into the soothing trap that is the talk of potential or the self-indulgent regrets of what could have been.
Because if the team doesn’t demonstrate massive improvement on the field soon, a change in leadership may be both imminent and necessary.
An overhaul of personnel has not always been in the cards for Michigan, as Daley has enjoyed stretches of success at the helm — most notably from 2017 to 2019, when the team made the NCAA tournament for three consecutive seasons and also won a Big Ten title. In that span, a crowned Daley cemented himself in the role for the foreseeable future.
But the program has been on a downward trajectory since those three prosperous seasons. After struggling to finish above .500 and missing the NCAA tournament in 2020 and 2021, the Wolverines hit rock bottom in 2022, winning just one conference match and finishing with an abysmal 4-10-3 record.
The 59 goals scored in the past three seasons is the lowest combined total across a three-year stretch in Michigan history. The 18 cumulative wins are tied for the least with 2014-2016, a previously woeful stretch that Daley survived.
And for these past three years, the messaging from the top has been much of the same. Daley has preached patience and focused on opportunities for growth — consistently insisting that his team has outplayed their opponent and been defeated due to pure misfortune and bad luck.
Just look at some of his past comments.
During the 2020 campaign, played in the spring of 2021 due to Covid, after a loss to Indiana:
“(We) got to get better at closing games out and putting teams away because, in the end, we did enough to put them away,” Daley said on Mar. 28, 2021. “We’re disappointed we didn’t get more out of the game because we feel they shouldn’t have gotten anything … We carried every phase of the game today … We had more chances and more quality chances. … We were unfortunate.”
In 2021, Daley echoed the sentiment of the previous season.
“Our identity is still forming,” he said on Oct. 26, 2021 after a loss to Ohio State that ended their regular season. “… We’re still trying to figure things out.”
And in 2022, these themes of fortitude echo throughout the entirety of the disastrous campaign.
“We did everything right except score,” Daley said after a draw with Oakland on Sep. 21, 2022. “We’re just a little bit snake bitten at the moment.”
And after a tie with Indiana:
“I think we created chances against every team this year … the hardest thing to do in the sport is to score a goal,” Daley said on Oct. 3, 2022. “… We’re continuing to create really good chances. We are better than our record has shown to this point … our group is disappointed, which is a good thing.”
After three years of this repetitiveness, Daley’s messages might be falling on deaf ears. Because you can’t blame the lack of results on the field on an absence of talent. Michigan consistently brings in top recruiting classes, infusing its roster with a plethora of talent year after year.
The Wolverines welcomed the second-ranked class in 2014, the ninth best nationwide in 2017, and 14th overall in 2020. In 2022, the seven freshman group was headlined by Nicholas Cassiday, named male high school player of the year by USA Today. Cassiday scored just one goal for Michigan and averaged 31 minutes per game.
When top-ranked players and national award winners are stacked up and down your starting eleven, a season of this caliber is unacceptable.
The only Big Ten schools that consistently bring in equally formidable recruits are Maryland and Indiana. The Hoosiers boast one of the strongest programs in college soccer, winning eight NCAA titles and 17 Big Ten championships, while the Terrapins won the National Championship in 2018 and have not missed the NCAA tournament in over two decades.
The Wolverines do not belong in the conversation with those two regular contenders, because — for whatever reason — they are unable to turn the talent they attain on the recruiting trail into success on the pitch. Instead, Michigan leadership has advocated for patience and shifting the narrative to focus on its ever-expanding potential.
But for Chaka Daley, that promising future needs to become the present soon.