As he assessed the depth chart before the season began, Michigan coach Steve Burns knew that he had a special offense at his disposal — a talent-laden attack with the most potential of perhaps any team he had ever coached.
After losing forward Mauro Fuzetti — the team’s top goal-scorer last season — to the MLS draft, the Michigan men’s soccer team (2-1-1) reloaded up front by landing a few of the nation’s top recruits.
And with two of last year’s three leading scorers returning in senior forward Justin Meram (a JUCO transfer last year) and sophomore midfielder Hamoody Saad, Burns already had a solid foundation in place. He didn’t want to completely revamp his team’s makeup, but he added a few players to help bolster the offense.
The biggest addition was forward Soony Saad, a five-star recruit out of Dearborn, Michigan, and brother of Hamoody. Soony scored a state-record 172 goals in high school, was named Mr. Soccer for Michigan and received the Gatorade National Player of the Year award this May.
“Soony is a legitimate goal scorer, the most prolific to ever come out of the state of Michigan, and the best in the nation,” Burns said through the athletic department earlier this year. “We expect him to have a dynamic career wearing the Maize and Blue.”
Yet adding just one piece wasn’t going to solve the puzzle for the Wolverines.
Burns’s final count had seven true freshmen coming into the offensive ranks, including Fabio Pereira Villas Boas, a highly touted Brazilian-born attacking midfielder. The team also has redshirt freshman forward Noble Sullivan back this season after he was forced to miss last year with an injury.
“We’ve got a strong freshman class coming in, and the success of our season is going to rest partially on their success over the course of their first year here,” Burns said following the season opener. “We’re counting on them to contribute, and they’re capable of it.”
According to Meram, adding youth to a team playing with a strong, experienced backfield is a major advantage.
“It’s a new crew up front for us,” Meram said last week. “The advantage is that other teams don’t know what the new guys are about, and they have so much talent. When all of us are together on offense, it scares even our own team because we’ve got so many threats.”
The rookies were thrown to the wolves right from the onset, as No. 14 Drake came to Ann Arbor on Sept. 3, looking to avenge an upset loss to Michigan last season. Burns showed complete trust in his new offense, sending out Meram, Boas, sophomore midfielder Latif Alashe and the Saad brothers to start — two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior.
With those proven weapons leading the offensive charge, the outlook for Michigan is much more promising than in past seasons.
“This year our offense is a lot better than what we had last year,” Hamoody said. “Last year we were expected to have a bad year, and that really brought the team down. But this year we feel like we have the most talent in the Big Ten, and with our forwards combining very easily, this year we’re ten times better than last year.”
Although the game against Drake ended up in Michigan’s loss column as a 1-0 defeat, the young offense more than doubled the Bulldogs in shots, shots-on-goal and corner kicks.
That aggressive style of play has been constant through three games this season, as the Wolverines have doubled every team in those same three categories. Their attacking attitude has also earned them twice as many fouls as they’ve been penalized for, which keeps the play in the opponent’s end of the field.
As far as the aggression the team has displayed, Meram attributes it to the team playing with more energy than in the past.
“We’re just hungry,” Meram said. “We’re all goal-scorers, from me to Hamoody, Soony and Fabio, we compete every day at practice because we all want to score. We’re unselfish, so we all help each other out, and I think that’s really the bottom line.”
Another explanation for Michigan’s spike in offensive shot production comes from an unexpected source. And because of this seemingly minor detail, Hamoody said he has the opportunity to “be more lethal on the field.”
The conference’s new gamepiece — the Adidas Jabulani ball that was so controversial during this summer’s World Cup in Africa — has been an interesting addition to say the least.
“It’s a weird ball,” Hamoody said. “(It) can go in one direction and then all of the sudden dip and change direction. When we shoot it from far out it’s so hard for the goalkeepers to handle. There is no way a goalkeeper is going to catch that ball, he has to push back out, so that just gives us another opportunity to shoot off the rebound.”
And the effects have already shown themselves, as Hamoody took a strike from long-distance and fooled the goalkeeper to beat Detroit 2-1, in overtime, on Sept. 1.
Helping out on D
No one has questioned the Wolverines’ ability to score, though scoring has seemed like trying to catch lightning in a bottle this season. Once a higher percentage of shots find their way to the back of the net, the team should find itself atop the Big Ten in most offensive categories.
But the biggest question left for the offense is whether the forwards can defend, create pressure around midfield, and lead a counterattack.
“Our offense is tops,” Hamoody said last Wednesday. “I feel like if we can get back and play defense like Barcelona does, where everyone is moving, everyone is playing the ball, we’ll be hard to beat.”
And if that help comes on defense, the team is looking to sustain lengthy and meticulous trips on the attack.
“We need to try and play through them instead of play over them,” Hamoody said. “I like working with a lot of short passes rather than the long ball. I think we can dismantle teams so much easier if we just play the ball around more.”
The camaraderie of a brotherhood
This offensive group seems to have a special connection while playing on the field, even after just four games, and that’s not only because of the brotherly connection between Hamoody and Soony.
The offense has displayed trust throughout the beginning of the season, which has resulted in a plethora of quality scoring chances.
As for the brothers, they’ve kicked things off just right. They are first and second on the team in goals, with little brother Soony leading the race with three goals.
“I feel like the younger players on the team almost have the same mindset,” Hamoody said. “We play for the person next to us, we don’t play for ourselves. If I had a shot that I had a 50 percent chance of making, and I saw Fabio had a 51 percent chance of scoring, I’d give it to him.”
As the Big Ten season draws near, that on-field connection will play a huge factor in determining whether this team will be a true contender or a non-factor in the conference.
In his last season as a Wolverine, Meram promised that it would not be the latter.
“You will see us compete for a Big Ten championship this season,” Meram said. “I guarantee you that.”
Right in stride, Hamoody pushed the ball a little further still.
“Every year we set the goal of winning the Big Ten. I feel like this year we all know that we have a good chance of actually doing it. If we get our forwards clicking on offense, as well as helping out on defense, we can really make a big splash in college soccer and finally make a name for ourselves.”