The last time the Michigan women’s soccer team played Michigan State, the Wolverines came back to Ann Arbor licking their wounds after a lopsided 3-0 loss in East Lansing.
The Wolverines controlled the ball, but the Spartans defended deep and hit Michigan on the counter to devastating effect. That loss saw the overall rivalry tilt in favor of Michigan State, which went up 12 wins to the Wolverines’ 11.
A lot has changed since then. Michigan (2-0-0 Big Ten, 6-1-1 overall) will host the Spartans (1-1-0, 4-4-1) as overwhelming favorites this time around. The Wolverines have yet to lose at home this season, starting out with a draw and then winning the last four. Michigan State, on the other hand, has a .500 record on the road, winning and losing two games each.
However, Michigan coach Greg Ryan downplayed Michigan’s form heading into the game.
“We’ve been playing well.” Ryan said. “But the main thing for us is to go in with a lot of energy. We have a lot of quality, and if we can match that with intensity I think we’ll do great.”
Michigan State, on the other hand, no longer plays its old brand of counterattacking soccer. The Spartans spent this season pressing teams higher up the pitch and trying to spend more time on the ball.
“They haven’t played like that (counter-attacking football) at all this year,” Ryan said. “They changed to a 4-3-3. But we have to prepare for both, the new State and the old State.”
In terms of tactical flexibility, the Wolverines prefer to play a possession-based 4-3-3, but when needed, they have been able to aptly shift to a 3-5-2, crowd midfield and spread play wide to create more space in the middle upfield.
Beyond not overly relying on a single style of play, Michigan hasn’t been dependent on a single player either. Redshirt junior forward Ani Sarkisian, sophomore forward Reilly Martin and sophomore midfielder Abby Kastroll all sit on four goals apiece.
“Thankfully we have a lot of quality upfront.” Ryan said. “They’re not just scoring goals either. They’re making a lot of (goal-scoring) opportunities for each other, too.”
The stats reflect Ryan’s sentiment, with Sarkisian and Martin both leading the team with four assists each, with Kastroll just behind having set up three goals.
The Wolverines have also called on two different goalkeepers to play between the posts throughout the season. Redshirt sophomore Sarah Jackson is the first choice having conceded just three goals in her six games. She picked up the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award on Sept. 6.
However, after picking up a knock against Iowa last weekend, Jackson was replaced by last season’s first-choice keeper, junior Megan Hinz, for the game against Nebraska.
“Sarah is still getting over her injury.” Ryan said. “If she’s fit, she’ll start. But Megan had a fantastic game against Nebraska, so I’m glad I have two quality players in that position.”
Having conceded six goals in eight games while scoring 18, Michigan looks well placed to tie up the rivalry at 12 wins apiece this Saturday.