For the Michigan men’s soccer team, it has been a season of the unexpected. With injury after injury, a struggling offense and what can only be described as a massacre at the hands of Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament, the Wolverines have experienced numerous unanticipated setbacks.
But at 4:30 p.m. yesterday, the unexpected took a turn for the better — Michigan (1-4-1 Big Ten, 10-7-4 overall) received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wolverines gathered at coach Steve Burns’s house in tense anticipation yesterday, as ESPNews hosted a tournament special in which the network revealed the 48-team field. In the very last bracket shown, Michigan’s name was called. It will now face Mid-American Conference Tournament winner Akron in Ann Arbor on either Friday or Saturday. The winner will face Indiana in Bloomington next week in the second round.
“There was a lot of nervous energy that erupted into cheers,” Burns said. “It felt like we just scored a big goal in a big game.”
The Wolverines had reason to be concerned. After upsetting Ohio State in a 1-0 overtime victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan looked helpless in a 5-0 rout by Northwestern in the semifinals. With the devastating loss to the Wildcats, it looked like the Wolverines’ chance of receiving an NCAA bid was small at best.
“I’m speechless,” senior Knox Cameron said. “It’s really unbelievable, to be honest. If I didn’t see Michigan’s (name) on the TV, my career would be over at Michigan.”
But Burns was not surprised to receive a bid. He credits Michigan’s selection to a committee that recognizes Northwestern’s strength, as well as the Wolverines’ high RPI rating. The Big Ten also ended up being the top conference in the country, evidenced by six of the seven eligible Big Ten teams earning NCAA bids, with Wisconsin the lone exception. Last year, the ACC was the top-ranked conference, and six out of its seven teams also received bids.
“We felt pretty good going in,” Burns said. “But I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night or any work done at the office today.”
Last season, the Wolverines made an unexpected Cinderella-story run in the NCAA Tournament, advancing all the way to the quarterfinals. This year, Michigan will look to repeat and exceed last year’s results. The Wolverines decisively defeated the Zips 4-0 at home on Oct. 29 in their most offensive effort of the year.
But Burns is by no means expecting another easy win.
“Akron is a very good team,” Burns said. “That result we got is an anomaly on their schedule. They were a much better team than they showed, so we’re not going to take them for granted.”
Michigan will also be without senior Mychal Turpin, one of the players who played a key role in that previous win against Akron and the Wolverines’ leading goal-scorer. The forward received a red card in the Northwestern game and now must sit out in the first game of the NCAA Tournament on suspension.
“(Turpin) is going to be a huge loss,” Cameron said. “We haven’t played without him all year. I don’t know how you can compensate for a player of his caliber.”
Even though Turpin has contributed a team-leading number of goals this season (6), Michigan has been used to not having its best offensive players on the field. Cameron, the Big Ten Player of the year in 2003, recently returned from his injury that kept him off the field from the beginning of the season until Nov. 3.
Burns is confident his team will fill the gap Turpin is leaving come game time.
“What we’ve seen is that we need to have all of our players show up with their ‘A’-game on the day,” Burns said. “It’s tournament time, and whenever you get into a higher level, everybody is better and playing their best. And that is all we’re trying to do.”