Even with temperatures dipping below freezing, fans appeared at the Michigan soccer Complex in droves to watch the Michigan men’s soccer team matchup against Michigan State on Saturday night.
And feeding off of the electric atmosphere, the Wolverines did not disappoint. Responding to the beat of the drums, the waving flags and the continuous chanting from the packed stadium, Michigan downed the Spartans 1-0.
“It was one of the largest crowds definitely this season, maybe even comparable to (the 2010 season),” said junior midfielder Dylan Mencia. “It played a huge role tonight and we fed our energy off of the crowd.”
As the clock ticked down on the Michigan victory, the pace of the drums quickened until the clock read “00:00.” As soon as the whistle blew, the drums stopped and fans rushed the field to mob the Wolverines near the team’s bench. In unison, players and fans chanted and lifted the Big Bear Trophy — given annually to the winner of the in-state rivalry game.
“The ‘Ultras’ are always a factor for us,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley. “They make the difference and tonight they were superb. Our guys play for them and I fight for them as well.
“They’re so contagious, they’re always into it. They have great chanting and a great spirit. You win a game and they rush the field. Where do you see that in college soccer?”
The largest crowd of the 2012 season — 2,225 fans were in attendance — came out to send off midfielder Latif Alashe, midfielder Etienne Lussiez, midfielder Noble Sullivan, defenseman Kofi Opare and defenseman Brian Klemczak. The five seniors were honored before the game as part of senior night, and have likely played their last match in Ann Arbor.
And Daley made certain that the meaning of this game was not lost on the rest of the team.
“The thing that I told our guys, all of the younger guys, was that one day you’re going to be a senior,” Daley said. “And the younger guys really fought for the seniors tonight. I told them that you want to play for your seniors and we want to the seniors to have a ‘seniors’ performance.”
And that’s exactly what the seniors did. Led by Opare and Klemczak, the defense was excellent. The Spartans didn’t manage a shot until 27 minutes had passed in the contest, and it was six minutes after intermission before they were able to muster their first shot on-goal. The Michigan defense worked tirelessly to limit Michigan State’s offensive opportunities, and by the end of the night had registered its fifth shutout of the season.
And in a story that could not have been scripted much better, the tie-breaking goal was produced by a senior.
In the 70th minute, junior midfielder Fabio Pereira lofted a corner kick into the box, near the far goalposts. Standing almost untouched, Opare calmly headed the ball into the back of the net for his third goal of the season.
“(Pereira) played a great ball and I had the easy, easy job of just heading it in,” Opare said. “It’s a great feeling to score (on senior night), but also just to win for our team, the coaches, our fans, and the whole school.”
For the rest of the Wolverines, they were just happy to help make it a truly special night for the seniors.
“I don’t think anyone on our team would have wanted the goal to come from anyone else besides one of the five seniors,” Mencia said. “It was senior night and we wanted to play for our seniors, and that provided motivation for us. ”