Picture the perfect introduction to the Chaka Daley era for the Michigan men’s soccer program. It would probably include a clean sheet from redshirt goalkeeper Adam Grinwis, a comfortable match pace and a flawless game-winning goal — all part of a road upset of a national-title contender.
Michigan had all of that — fleetingly — in its season opener against No. 5 South Florida on Friday night.
In the end, it was all smoke and mirrors.
The Wolverines allowed two goals in a minute’s time and fell, 2-1, to the Bulls in front of an announced 3,076, the second-largest crowd in the history of South Florida’s Corbett Stadium.
The Bulls controlled possession for the match’s early stages. In the third minute, Grinwis extended fully to tip away a Bulls’ shot from the box. A shot off the rebound hit the crossbar before the ball was finally cleared from danger.
Seventeen minutes later, Grinwis again needed to extend his 6-foot-1 frame to prevent a South Florida goal after forward Kevin Olali found a gap in the Wolverine defense and struck a ball cleanly from the top of the box. But Grinwis corralled the shot despite the jeers of the South Florida student section seated directly behind him.
The Michigan attack failed to get anything going during the first half. In fact, the Wolverines’ first shot didn’t come until the match’s 45th minute, when Mencia ripped a shot off a set piece that Bulls goalie Eric Osswald dove to keep from finding the net.
South Florida took on a very aggressive formation midway through the first half, countering Michigan’s 4-5-1, and the Wolverines mostly backpedaled their way to a 0-0 tie going into the locker room as they were outshot 6-1.
“We expected a fast game,” said junior midfielder Dylan Mencia. “We started a little bit slow but we rallied back. Going into the second half, we looked to raise the tempo a little bit. I think everybody realized that we can play with this team.”
Just one minute into the second half, Michigan’s halftime adjustments paid dividends.
Mencia, who was brought on late in the first half as a substitute, headed in a deflection goal from the center of the box that caught Osswald guessing wrong. Freshman midfielder Luke Coulson, a native of Manchester, England, earned the assist by knocking the ball in Mencia’s vicinity so he could finish the play, which gave the Wolverines a 1-0 lead.
“It all happened so fast,” Mencia said. “It was a split-second decision (to cut off Coulson’s ball).”
Mencia knocked heads with a South Florida player in the 62nd minute as both attempted to play the ball and the junios was taken from the match. He would reenter later in the night.
The Wolverines were whistled for a penalty just outside of their box in the 63rd minute. Grinwis, who had been impenetrable for the match’s opening 64 minutes, lost the ball in a sea of white jerseys after his back line failed to clear the danger. The ball found the back corner of the net, tying the score at one.
“It’s a big scrum in front of the goal,” Daley said. “The ball’s bouncing around quite a bit. They were very fortunate. … It was a very opportunistic, fortunate goal, not necessarily a good goal by any means.”
After the tying goal, the South Florida student section set off a smoke bomb that covered the Wolverines’ defensive third of the pitch, making it hard to see.
Play continued through the fog and just one minute later, South Florida was awarded a penalty kick after a hard foul by senior captain Kofi Opare in the Michigan box that earned him a yellow card. Grinwis dove to save the initial try, but the rebound went right to the Bulls’ Ben Sweat who easily finished into the nearly empty net, giving South Florida the 2-1 lead.
Following the game, Daley was surprised a smoke bomb would be legal to be brought into the stadium.
“I was kind of concerned with that,” Daley said. “The environment was really great for our guys and for college soccer in general. But I definitely was concerned about the smoke after the goal how that might impact the game. You never see that in college athletics or college soccer.
“The bigger issue for us was the rebound and not cleaning up our mess.”
Daley, who said he didn’t remember similar smoke bombs from his trips to Tampa as the head coach of Providence for 12 years prior to coming to Ann Arbor, mentioned the confusion to the referees “briefly.”
In the 74th minute, junior forward Ezekiel Harris nearly tied the game up once again, but his shot from in close went wide of the goalpost. But the Bulls’ counterattack came even closer to pulling away as Olali danced away from Michigan defenders before launching a shot right at the post that skipped away.
During the closing minutes, Osswald dropped the ball after a Michigan corner, but no blue shirt was in the area to finish off the potential equalizer and South Florida hung on for the victory in the season opener.
Endurance certainly played a role in the defeat. Not only is it difficult to adjust to playing a full 90 minutes early in the season, but the Tampa heat and long pitch didn’t do the Wolverines any favors either.
“It was warm, but we came down here a couple of days earlier because we could,” Daley said. “I don’t think the weather was a major factor.”
Added Mencia: “Endurance is a huge, especially in the beginning of the season. … That was probably one of the biggest fields we’ll play on all season. It was really wide, really long so endurance played a huge part.”