There’s no such thing as a perfect recipe for success in college soccer. With the changes it made this offseason, the Michigan men’s soccer team aspires to come closer to that goal than previous years.
On account of senior departures, Team 21 will look different from its previous iterations. The Wolverines hope these changes can lead to improvement in the program, but they don’t want to lose sight of what made them successful.
Star scorers Nebosja Popovic and Jack Hallahan graduated from the program last season, leaving behind two significant holes in the offensive scheme. Both players shouldered much of the offensive weight in 2019, with Popovic earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, a title that Hallahan claimed the season before.
But, unlike past seasons, coach Chaka Daley said scoring this year won’t come from the usual two-punch system that has brought Michigan success. Rather, a team effort is necessary for the Wolverines’ offense to find success.
Depth will be a crucial component of that formula. With eight freshmen and a transfer student in junior Cameron Martin joining the Wolverines this season, young talent courses through the Michigan roster. While they lost a hefty amount of experience with last year’s graduating class, having skilled assets throughout the roster could be the difference-maker in a 10-game conference season.
“I think we’ll have some more options to tinker with and figure out,” Daley said. “Much like anything, when someone leaves, an opportunity opens up for someone else. I think there’s some good quality and some good depth within the group.”
Attacking players like sophomore Christian Pulselli, junior Derick Broche and freshman Evan Rasmussen will likely cycle up front for the Wolverines, but players like senior Marc Ybarra and sophomore Inaki Rodriguez could also find themselves breaking out offensively for the Wolverines.
While scoring goals can help the Wolverines, Michigan’s stout defense has been its calling card for the past two seasons. After conceding just 18 goals each year, the Michigan defense set school records for its efficiency. The Wolverines will look to add to that shut-down reputation.
Senior defenders like Umar Farouk Osman and Jackson Ragen could be catalysts for the team to find its usual defensive confidence. Working in new defenders like freshman Jens Hoff could preserve the skills the Wolverines have relied on.
“I always tell myself the team’s offense is already good if the defense is doing well,” Osman said. “It all begins from trusting each other, working on the foundation and building team chemistry.”
Michigan will also add a dash of experienced goalkeeping with sophomore Owen Finnerty returning in goal. Starting seven games last season when then-senior Andrew Verdi went down with an injury, Finnerty was thrown in the pressure cooker of the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. This year, he’ll try to use that to his advantage.
Finnerty looks like the obvious starter, but that doesn’t mean the team feels uncomfortable with other keepers. The team trusts its depth all the way from senior Jacob Nunner to freshman Jamis Fite, something that makes defenders feel safe, according to Osman.
With the usual fall season pushed back to the winter, Michigan had more time to bond and practice. Rolling out their imperfections and raising their skills, that extra training could be a silver lining to the postponement of the season as the Wolverines look to make the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in a row.
With a flexibility natural to competing in the COVID-19 era, Osman said the team navigated the recent two-week pause like a mere “bump in the road” rather than a crushing blow.
Just because the team navigated one pandemic-induced challenge, does not mean its shadow can’t fall on the team. Instead of competing in Ann Arbor, they will need to commute to Brighton’s Legacy Center to host opponents due to inadequate indoor facilities.
Finding ways to overcome these hurdles will be essential for the Wolverines to make a postseason run. With fewer at-large openings in the NCAA tournament and home-field advantage on the line in the Big Ten, every game will take the atmosphere of a must-win.
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