When senior Santos Perez took the field for the men’s soccer team’s season opener against Wisconsin-Green Bay, he had no idea it would be his last game as a midfielder.
Perez was injured early in the game while trying to shield the ball from an oncoming defender. Michigan earned a free kick off the collision, which gave the Wolverines an early lead, but the tackle left Perez limping.
“I didn’t know I was hurt,” Perez said. “I was lying on the ground and got up and I tried to walk it off but my knee just didn’t feel right.”
Perez resumed playing after the Wolverines’ goal but knew he had to leave the game. After looking at Perez’s knee, the trainers quickly confirmed his injury. The diagnosis: a partially torn medial collateral ligament, one of four ligaments critical for stabilizing the knee joint. Perez’s injury didn’t require surgery, just enough time to heal and steady rehabilitation, but it left him on the sidelines for five weeks.
When he returned Oct. 4 against Indiana, Perez had a new place on the field: on defense.
As a freshman, Perez came in with experience at several positions. He began as a defensive midfielder and tested out the backfield at the end of his freshman season. He returned to midfield as a sophomore and then last year primarily played as an outside midfielder.
But after he became more familiar with Perez’s style, Michigan coach Steve Burns saw that Perez could be a bigger asset in the backfield.
“Santos has a bit of nastiness to his game and a bit of bite,” Burns said. “If you’ve got that going for you then you’re going to be a pretty good defender in the end.”
Even though Perez fits the defenseman profile, sometimes his midfielder tendencies show through.
“The biggest thing Santos has probably had to make adjustments on is having patience,” Burns said. “Patience translates to buying more time for the team to get organized behind you. As soon as he got that concept, that my job is to buy time, he became a starter for us.”
Coming off his injury, Perez had to adjust to a new view of the field. But the transition wasn’t very hard despite the “bigger and faster game.”
The other defenders agree that Perez fits in well, and they were eager to welcome him back to the field.
“He has a really good mind for the game,” senior captain and defender Mike Holody said. “He’s really versatile and steady. He always keeps us organized.”
Perez has continued to be a dominant force for the Wolverines. Since coming back from his injury, Perez started seven of the last nine games and has seen action in all of them. The Wolverines gave up just five goals in that span.
“Santos is one of those playmaking players,” Burns said. “When he receives the ball, there is such a comfort level. He brings the team’s anxiety level down whenever he’s on ball.”
Perez wasn’t nervous about moving back either, having always been more defensive as a midfielder. And even though Perez plays well in both positions, he prefers midfield. But he doesn’t let his personal preference dictate his play.
“I haven’t really asked (to move up),” Perez said. “We’ve been doing so well that I’m just looking to help out the team. And if that requires me to play defense, that’s fine with me.”