If four years have made anybody on the Michigan men’s soccer team older and wiser, it’s “Pops.”
Senior co-captain Brian Popeney came into Michigan like everyone else – one of the best players on his high school team with expectations of starting for the Maize and Blue.
But as a freshman, Popeney played in seven games, starting just one. For the remainder of his Michigan career, Popeney would spend most of his time coming off the bench.
Instead of hanging up his cleats, the Canton native tied them tighter.
“Everyone coming in expects to be a starter,” Popeney said. “So, there is a little bit of disappointment. But at the same time, it was a good learning process. I had to accept (the situation) and learn how to help the team in whatever way I could.”
Though he has not started, Popeney has played in 13 of 18 games so far this season. But the senior has made valuable contributions to the team even when he’s not tallying minutes on the field. Michigan coach Steve Burns said that Popeney’s leadership extends from confronting teammates in the locker room to being a motivational cheerleader on the sideline. Popeney was named a co-captain this season.
“It can be very difficult for a player to come into Michigan that has expectations of (leaving with stats that show) he had a great career and that doesn’t materialize,” Burns said. “That says a lot about the character of the person when he realizes that his reaction to that (disappointment) is everything. Popeney realizes that it is his attitude that determines the mood of the team, and he is so positive. It is one of those things I get choked up about.”
Burns points to Michigan’s Oct. 15 game against Northwestern as an example of Popeney’s leadership style. After giving up a goal just 10 seconds before the first half ended, the demoralized Wolverines slowly came off the field down 2-0 at halftime. But the co-captain ran over from the bench and started yelling, “Jog off! Keep your heads up!”
“That’s so valuable,” Burns said. “It is one thing when coaches say those things to you but quite another when teammates and peers say that to you. That is Brian Popeney. He is such a class leader within our program.”
Though Michigan would go on to lose the game by the same score, Popeney’s role as team motivator has proved invaluable for a struggling young Wolverine team. Michigan (0-2-3 Big Ten, 5-9-4 overall) has not won since its Sept. 20 game against Oakland. Popeney recognizes that his contributions as a veteran leader are even more vital when a young team can’t seem to dig itself out of a hole.
“When the season is not going the way you expect it to like this year, it is very easy for everyone to stray off in their own ways, and the team falls apart a little bit,” Popeney said. “We’ve tried to focus on keeping everyone close and making sure we realize how good the team actually is. We need to make sure that we keep on competing.”
When he gets playing time, Popeney makes every minute count – on both sides of the ball. Before his career at Michigan, Popeney had always been a central attacking midfielder. But with that position occupied, Popeney had to learn quickly to adapt to other positions.
His role has ranged from defensive midfielder to attacking midfielder to forward this year. With two goals and one assist on the season, Popeney certainly hasn’t lost touch with his attack game.
But it’s on the defensive end that Burns sees the veteran’s greatest improvement.
“Where Brian has improved is his willingness to do the defensive tracking work,” Burns said. “He realizes that every play could be the most important play in the game, even if that means putting pressure on one of (the other team’s) players.”
Though the senior plans to retire his jersey for a suit and tie in law school next year, Popeney said that he will take his experience playing for Michigan with him wherever he goes.
“The things I will take away from this experience are time management. . All the friends I made here. . And just the honor of competing for Michigan.”
Popeney hopes to finish off his final game at the U-M Soccer Field with a victory against Penn State on Saturday. The Wolverines face the Nittany Lions at 7 p.m. in their last regular season contest before the Big Ten Tournament.