Finally, the Michigan men’s soccer team can take a deep breath and relax.
Well, at least for about 48 hours.
Despite a missed penalty kick, the Wolverines edged out Wisconsin, 1-0, in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday in Evanston, Ill. Michigan (3-2-1 Big Ten, 9-8-1 overall) advances into the semifinal with the victory, but more importantly, ensures the pivotal .500 winning percentage on the season needed to earn for NCAA Tournament eligibility.
“It’s good,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “I think you obviously want to be in control of your own destiny. I think if we can play in the final, we’ll definitely be in the (NCAA) Tournament.”
Though the Wolverines outshot the Badgers 15-8, they couldn’t convert on any of their first-half chances. Luckily for Michigan, neither could Wisconsin (1-3-2, 6-8-5). Two lackluster offenses going up against solid, proven back lines produced a halftime stalemate that surprised no one.
“I think we were maybe a little bit nervous,” Daley said. “It was a big game and Wisconsin is great defensively.”
It was evident that it would take a defensive breakdown of some sort for either team to break through. In the 50th minute, the Wolverines thought they found that opportunity when a Badger brought down junior forward T.J. Roehn in the 18-yard box for a Michigan penalty kick.
The Wolverines’ leading scorer, sophomore midfielder Tyler Arnone, stepped in for the penalty and the chance to put Michigan up 1-0.
He missed. The shot rattled off the post and into the hands of Wisconsin’s freshman goalkeeper Chase Rau. Even with their season at stake, the Wolverines couldn’t capitalize on that crucial opportunity.
“It was very unlucky,” Daley said. “I think the guys were a little rattled. They didn’t react great but they weathered the storm and got the job done.“
James Murphy, a freshman forward from Witney, England, has had a successful first season in Ann Arbor, leading the team in shots on goal. In the 68th minute, Murphy slid one past Wisconsin freshman goalkeeper Chase Rau for his third goal — and third game-winning goal — of the season. At last, the Wolverines snagged the lead with 20 minutes left.
“It’s always great to score in any game,” Murphy said. “But the first game of the Big Ten Tournament, with our season on the line, that made it a little bit more special.”
Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Adam Grinwis held fast late to preserve his third shutout in the last four games and his fifth of the season. As the scoreboard ticked down to zero toard the end of the match, Michigan’s sideline and fans stopped biting their fingernails and took that long-awaited sigh of relief. They could breathe again.
The Wolverines will live another day (or two), and with an NCAA Tournament berth closer than ever, the team can begin to unwind and prepare for Friday afternoon’s semifinal matchup against two-seed Northwestern, who beat seven-seed Ohio State, 2-0, in their quarterfinal game on Wednesday.