They had barely caught their breath coming out of halftime.
Just 39 seconds into the second half of Friday’s semifinal game of the Big Ten Tournament against No. 2 seed and host Ohio State, the No. 6 seed Michigan men’s soccer team gave up a goal that would prove to be all the Buckeyes needed to escape with a 1-0 win – and seal the end of the Wolverines’ season.
“Scoring goals in soccer is about finding if you can take advantage of one or two consecutive mistakes that the opponent makes,” Michigan coach Steve Burns said. “Ohio State scored a good goal against us. . The difference in the game was who finished the chances.”
After the first half concluded in a scoreless deadlock, the Buckeyes (3-2-1 Big Ten, 11-6-3 overall) broke the stalemate at the outset of the second stanza. Left alone at the top left corner of the 18-yard-box, Ohio State’s Geoff Marsh collected a pass and beat Michigan goalkeeper Patrick Sperry to tally the score.
Instead of rolling over, the Wolverines bared their teeth in attack mode.
“I think Ohio State just caught us off guard and, from there, we knew we were going to have to fight harder and give everything to get back in the game,” freshman Mauro Fuzetti said.
Leading goal-scorer Peri Marosevic had two good looks on the net at both the 53rd and 62nd minute-marks. But Ohio State goalkeeper Casey Latchem made the saves to stifle the freshman’s chances for glory.
Marosevic – who tallied four shots on goal for the day – also had a golden scoring opportunity in the first half. On a breakaway from the right flank in the 34th minute, the rookie fired from 12 yards out. Latchem was able to knock the ball out of bounds, setting up a series of three corner kicks for Michigan (1-2-3, 7-10-4). But each restart passed without a conversion.
At the end of the day, the Wolverines took a total of 18 shots without a result – a familiar scene for Michigan this year. Despite tallying more shots than any other Big Ten team this season, Michigan often came up empty. The Wolverines’ 18-goal total from the regular season is the lowest in the conference.
“Before this season, I believed that you should finish one out of every six shots,” Burns said. “(By that equation), we should’ve been on 50 goals. But we’re not. It’s through maturity and experience that you’ll learn how to get to that one to six ratio. When you have a young attacking team, they need to play beyond their years if they are going to have success scoring goals.”
Struggling to convert, Michigan increased its level of physicality to match an aggressive Buckeye team. The Wolverines earned 19 fouls – including three yellow cards – compared to Ohio State’s 18 fouls and two yellow cards.
“When you’re playing in the Big Ten Tournament against a higher seed, you have to go in with that fighting mentality, and our guys did that,” Burns said. “We set the table for them by making them realize that we were going to see what kind of men we were and what kind of guts we have. . Ohio State is a big rival of ours, and we expected that it would be physical at any time. We’ve got a lot of fight on our team though we are small in stature. We are not going to back down.”
Despite Michigan continuing to apply pressure, the Buckeyes began bunkering in, staying behind the ball deep in their territory and having their forwards track back.
In the end, Ohio State’s defensive game plan absorbed Michigan’s attack, and the Buckeyes held on for the narrow 1-0 victory.
Michigan ended its season tied for fifth in the Big Ten with an overall record a few games shy of .500. Burns attributes the season’s results to a difficult schedule. In terms of RPI, Michigan’s strength of schedule ranked as the 10th most difficult in the country.
With such a young team this year, freshmen were immediately thrown into starting roles as attackers in pressure-filled situations. Often, inexperience resulted in defeats and disappointments.
But holding the underdog position for most of the year proved a valuable learning experience for these rookies.
“I realized that you can’t let down at any point,” Fuzetti said. “All of the games are going to be difficult, and you always have to stay focused and motivated.”
Burns said that he will look back on this year as a learning season for him as well when he prepares for the future of this young group.
“As a team, we will now continue to look for ways to win games,” Burns said. “We won’t spend any time having any kinds of excuses. . We will have our players know that next year when we watch (NCAA) selection day, we’ll be in it. It will be the difference between being a good team and a great team.”