AKRON, Ohio — It’s not often that the University of Michigan feels small compared to another school. But Ann Arbor sure felt far away on Sunday night when the Michigan men’s soccer team fell to Akron, 2-1, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
When the Wolverines (5-3-1 Big Ten, 11-10-1 overall) were introduced at Cub Cadet Stadium — home of No. 1 Akron — they were greeted by the jeers of more than 3,000 blue and gold-clad fans, many of whom pay almost $300 for season tickets. The crowd gave the fourth-seeded Zips (7-0 Mid-American Conference, 18-1-2 overall) a unique home-field advantage. As the sun set and the match began, sophomore goalkeeper Adam Grinwis found hundreds of screaming fans standing just a few feet behind his net.
But Grinwis wasn’t fazed. In the 16th minute, midfielder Scott Caldwell had a fantastic early opportunity for Akron. Unmarked in Michigan’s 18-yard box, Caldwell redirected a low cross toward the goal. As the bleachers shook with anticipation, Grinwis scooped the bouncing ball off his line to keep the game scoreless.
Grinwis made two impressive saves late in the first half on shots by Caldwell and forward Dillon Serna. Diving left, Grinwis prevented a low line-drive from finding the lower right corner of the net. The rebound bounced out to Caldwell, but his effort was also parried away by a diving Grinwis.
“Adam (Grinwis) made some superb saves…that kept us in it,” said Michigan coach Chaka Daley.
Akron head coach Caleb Porter offered his own opinion on Grinwis, saying the keeper had “one of the best performances I have ever seen.”
Amidst the overwhelmingly pro-Akron crowd, both teams showed nerves early on. Before the first minute ticked off the electronic scoreboard, junior defender Ezekiel Harris received a yellow card for a vicious slide near the Zips’ bench. Minutes later, Akron’s Robbie Derschang was booked for a similar offense.
Michigan spent the majority of the first half in a defensive formation, utilizing a five-man back line in an attempt to keep Akron off the scoreboard. Thanks to Grinwis’ heroics, the move almost worked. But in the 43rd minute, Zips midfielder Eric Stevenson buried an 18-yard strike into the upper corner of the net.
As Stevenson ran to celebrate with his teammates, the stands trembled with renewed vigor.
The Zips responded, adding to their lead with 30 minutes remaining in the match. Forward Thomas Schmitt snuck behind the Wolverine defense and found himself alone against Grinwis. He sent a powerful shot on target that Grinwis managed to deflect, but the ball spun into the net.
Minutes later, Colin McAtee earned a direct red card for cleating an Akron defender. The Wolverines were falling apart, and the crowd knew it. They stomped their feet, shook their fists and yelled in disapproval.
Even Daley admitted that the crowd played an influence on the match. When Michigan visited Akron earlier in the year, Grinwis had to deal with the rowdy student section in the second half. So when Michigan won the toss, it elected to defend that side at the beginning of the game in exchange for an advantage later in the match.
“We won the toss and we wanted the crowd behind us in the first half so in the second half we could attack that goal,” Daley said. “(It is) very difficult to play into the student section. We obviously didn’t want that.”
The Zips fans had reasons to expect a victory. Thanks in part to the fabulous atmosphere, Akron hadn’t lost at home all season. In the regular season, it gave up only one goal in the home contests. And when the scoreboard mistakenly went dark midway through the first half, the fans barely noticed. They knew the Wolverines were unlikely to score.
Michigan proved the crowd wrong, finding new life when James Murphy found the back on the net on a free kick to cut the lead in half. And with under five minutes remaining in the match, junior midfielder Fabio Pereira curled a shot towards Akron’s goal that seemed destined to pull the Wolverines even.
But goalkeeper David Meves made a spectacular diving save to keep the Zips ahead and Michigan never threatened again. Minutes later the referee’s whistle signaled the end of the match, the conclusion of Michigan’s season, and Akron’s advance into the Sweet 16.