The Michigan men’s soccer team’s miracle run in last
year’s NCAA Tournament gave life to a very young program. In
just its third year, the program toppled the nation’s top
collegiate soccer schools, including No. 3 Notre Dame. The
team’s efforts became an unexpected but warmly received
Cinderella story.

After bowing out in the quarterfinals of the tournament, there
were high hopes for the Wolverines in 2004. And, in September, it
looked like Michigan had yet to break its stride, rolling through
its schedule with a six-game win streak, an undefeated record and
the No. 3 ranking in the nation.

But in the last month, the team dropped four out of its last
five games, managed just a single conference win and has fallen off
the national charts.

And now, with just four games left to play before the Wolverines
host the Big Ten Tournament, it seems like this slump could crush
Michigan’s hopes of following in last season’s
footsteps and receiving an NCAA bid.

But don’t judge a book by its cover.

“If you only look from the outside and see the results,
you’ll think we’re underachieving,” Burns said.
“But when you look from the inside, (you’ll see that)
we are achieving and maybe even overachieving.”

Sure on the outside, this year’s Michigan team (1-3-0 Big
Ten, 8-5-2 overall) seems to be a long way off from repeating last
season’s performance (5-1-0, 14-7-1). But when you look past
the numbers and see that the Wolverines are playing without six of
their starters and had to travel for eight out of their last nine
games, Burns’ words begin to sink in.

The devastating preseason knee injury of senior tri-captain Knox
Cameron certainly left a gaping hole in Michigan’s contingent
of forwards. The Wolverines had high hopes for the College Soccer
News preseason All-American and Herman Trophy candidate, who was
returning after his best season in 2003, scoring 33 points on 12
goals and nine assists.

But Cameron is just one player on a field where 11 play
together. In the first half of the season, Michigan looked like it
had compensated for his loss, bulldozing over its opponents six
consecutive times.

But any team can only handle so many injuries. After
Cameron’s departure, Wolverines began to drop like flies.

Besides Cameron, five other Wolverines have been forced to sit
on the sidelines due to injuries. Defenders Chris Glinski and
Dawson Stellberger as well as forwards Ryan Alexander, Cam Cameron
and Tolu Olowolafe are not likely to return this season. These
players had combined for four goals and 10 points for the team.

“When you look at the injuries, it’s really
staggering,” Burns said. “It’s a challenge when
you have new guys in that haven’t been with you for a long
time and getting those opportunities to develop. I look at this
team as achieving at a high level in the face of
adversity.”

Because so many goal-scorers were lost to injuries, newcomers
have had to fill some big shoes. Suddenly, the experienced, NCAA
Tournament-bound team of 2004 had received a makeover. The face of
2003 Michigan men’s soccer was young and inexperienced.

Adversity has come not just with the plague of injuries, though.
Playing eight of their last nine games on the road against stronger
opponents, the Wolverines have had their hands full with contests
against two top-15 teams, including returning-NCAA champion
Indiana.

The six-game win streak to open the season — while
impressive — was misleading. None of the victories came
against top-25 clubs, and half were played in Ann Arbor.

All of these intangibles have made Michigan’s road to the
NCAA Tournament a bumpy one.

But at the same time, excuses can only go so far in explaining
how a team which made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA
Tournament in 2003 and was ranked No. 16 in pre-season polls this
year could be suddenly struggling for a tally in the win
column.

And now, with the NCAA bids looming, time is running out. The
Wolverines must find a way to get back on track before their train
to the NCAA Tournament derails.

“We need to get results,” Burns said. “In the
face of not getting results, we understand we are still on track to
gain an NCAA bid, but our margin of error is very small.”

Treading on thin ice and looking to secure an NCAA bid, three
out of the next four games are must-wins, which — luckily for
the Wolverines — are all at home. Hopefully, having an
emotionally charged Senior Day coming up and playing host to the
Big Ten Tournament will turn things around for Michigan.

In addition, Cameron has begun practicing with the team again,
and Burns said a decision will be made this week if he will be able
to play for the remainder of the season. Burns has similar hopes
for Glinski.

With the possible return of key starters, home-field advantage
for the remainder of the regular season and memories of last
year’s unexpected post-season success, Michigan definitely
has the tools to translate effort into results — maybe a
sequel to the Cinderella story will be in the making.

“I think you’re always disappointed with the
losses,” Burns said. “But I’m not disappointed in
the overall effort or focus of the team.

“Don’t write this team off.”

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