SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Despite being outscored 12-2 in its last two meetings with Akron, no one believed another blowout was in the cards for the Michigan men’s soccer team in Friday’s national semifinal here on the campus of UC Santa Barbara.
In fact, the team was mere inches from snatching up a second-half lead before eventually falling to the third-seeded Zips, 2-1, in the College Cup.
After many attempts were squandered by Akron’s lightning-fast defense, the Saad brothers hooked up on a pass that found Soony streaking toward goal.
“There weren’t that many options,” Soony said after the game. “I decided to try and sneak it in. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
After miraculously weaving the ball through a sea of Zip defenders, the shot ricocheted off of the post and was harmlessly cleared.
“It came off his foot … and you think it had a good chance to go,” Michigan head coach Steve Burns said. “It came off the inside of the post. One less layer of paint and I think that thing goes.”
Soony’s near miss would prove to be the Wolverines’ best chance to stave off elimination and shock the team that defeated them 7-1 in mid-October.
The game started with a rare early goal for the Wolverines — senior forward Justin Meram’s strike from the top of the circle marked the first time in the tournament that the team scored a first-half goal.
“It was a great way to start off,” Meram said. “We had the momentum.”
With the 1-0 lead, it appeared that tenth-seeded Michigan could pull yet another upset and advance to Sunday’s title game against Louisville, which advanced earlier in the evening with a victory over North Carolina.
However, Akron did not let the early disadvantage stifle its opportunities — those were plentiful in the rest of the half as the Zips outshot the Wolverines 14-4. In the game’s 33rd minute, Perry Kitchen blasted one that stunned Michigan redshirt junior goalkeeper Chris Blais for the equalizer.
The stalemate stood for much of the second half. Michigan appeared poised to regain the lead down the home stretch when Soony’s shot found metal, not nylon. A discouraged Wolverine squad hunkered down against the bombardment of shots from Akron, who ultimately won the NCAA Championship on Sunday.
The lead was finally surrendered in the 74th minute when Kofi Sarkodie sank one off of a free kick from just outside of the Michigan box. Wolverine fans who made the trip to the College Cup — college soccer’s final four — had visions of Sarkodie making similar moves en route to a hat trick in the two team’s earlier matchup.
“Those are dangerous free kicks,” Burns said. “They had a good look at the back post”.
It would prove to be the game-winner after desperation attempts by Michigan were thwarted.
On its way to the College Cup, the Wolverines trekked into unchartered territory by advancing further than any other team in the program’s 11-year history.
But the clank off of the post that echoed through Harder Stadium long after the facility had emptied may have very easily cost Michigan a continued run and a chance to hoist the cup.