Torrential downpours. Mud-stained uniforms. Crater-sized puddles. U-M Soccer Field turned into a water war zone.
This was yesterday’s scene at the Michigan men’s soccer team’s Big Ten home opener against Northwestern. With the clock winding down, emotions running high and players slipping and sliding all over the soaking-wet field, Michigan – in addition to the elements – rained on Northwestern’s parade with a 1-0 drowning of the Wildcats.
“Last year, Northwestern gave us a beating at the Big Ten Tournament,” sophomore Tolu Olowolafe said. “It was on our home field, and (we suffered) a 5-0 loss. It was horrible. We just wanted to rebound from that and pay them back. Luckily, we did.”
With a few minutes remaining in the heated contest, Michigan coach Steve Burns sent in Olowolafe off the bench in hopes of trying to break the 0-0 stalemate. With just a little over one minute remaining in the game, freshman Jake Stacy served the ball ahead of Olowolafe on the right side of the goal box. It looked as if the ball was kicked just out of Olowolafe’s reach when Northwestern’s goalie came out of the goal to grab the loose ball. But with a little help from the elements – and a little bit of “luck” – the ball slipped out of the goalie’s hands, and Olowolafe tapped it in for the game-winning goal, his first tally of the season.
“This was unfortunately a game that, based on the conditions, was probably going to be capitalized on by someone’s mistake,” Burns said. “Luckily, we held tight and found that mistake. And Tolu capitalized on it.”
With about five minutes left in the game, Burns hoped to inspire his drenched and exhausted players by shouting from the sidelines, “Do it for the seniors!”
And the Wolverines did just that.
“We’ve got five seniors who have been through a lot,” Burns said. “Their record against Northwestern is 3-3. We really challenged all of our non-seniors to play for those guys, who have done so much to pull this team together and so much in terms of leadership. And it was done.”
For most of the first half, Michigan (6-2-0) was able to control the possession time and momentum of the game. But the Wolverines couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
“While it looked good, and we did have some good combinations, we never really got in behind Northwestern,” Burns said. “With that, they were setting up their counterattack – which is very good. We could never get around or behind their defense to create anything real dangerous. Even though we (controlled) the possession, Northwestern was still looking very dangerous, and the game could have been anybody’s at that point.”
Northwestern’s David Roth was one such dangerous player for the Wildcats (4-3-0), finding holes in the Michigan defense several times. But Roth was unable to convert.
In the middle of the first half, mother nature unleashed stormy weather on the U-M Soccer Field, and the game was suspended. After a 40-minute rain delay, the officials resumed the game – despite continued heavy rain, puddles on the field and extremely slippery conditions.
“(The inclement weather) takes a lot of the air out of the game,” Burns said. “But I think we did a good job being at home and in a comfortable environment. The bench added a lot of energy for us in terms of adding inspiration to the guys on the field, but also with the guys coming off the bench and picking up the level of play. (I give) credit to our depth and our bench on getting this win today.”
The flow of the game was extremely physical throughout. Two yellow cards were given out – one to freshman Chase Tennant and the other to Northwestern’s Adam Sirois. Michigan hoped to use this aggressive style of play to avenge the Wildcats’ romping of the hosting Wolverines at the Big Ten Tournament last year and to improve its record against a tough Northwestern team. The Wildcats had taken the last three of four games from the Wolverines in years past.
Shutting out its opponents in four out of its last five games, Michigan appears to be riding the tide after this important first conference victory.
“(This first Big Ten win) is very important,” Burns said. “Each one is so precious. Our team looked at the game in terms of what the goals are for the season, knowing that we have to take it one Big Ten game at a time. But today was our day.”