Traveling out of the state of Michigan for the first time this season, the Michigan men’s soccer team was looking to spoil a storied program’s homecoming festivities in Saturday’s game against St. Louis.
In this first meeting ever between the two programs, Michigan came up just short in a tough 2-1 loss to the Billikens.
“It was a good game,” Michigan (6-3-1) coach Steve Burns said. “I admitted to the guys that I thought, unfortunately, we came out with the wrong tactical plan. We tried to sit up on the ball and absorb their pressure. That was where St. Louis had an advantage. It wasn’t the right thing to do, especially on the road in front of a big crowd.”
With Michigan battling to absorb St. Louis’s counterattack, the Billikens came out in the first half with the offensive advantage. At 14:03, St. Louis’s Dado Slu Hamzagic beat Michigan goalkeeper Peter Dzubay with a header from six yards out for the Billikens’ first tally.
The Wolverines were able to muster a pair of shots on goal in the first half, but they were unable to convert.
The second half was a different story for Michigan.
“We pressed them and stepped up a lot higher,” Burns said. “St. Louis struggled to put their combinations together. Going into this game, I didn’t think we were a good pressing team, but the guys showed me a lot of character. I learned something about our team – more than anything – that we can be a team that steps up and denies a lot of space for the opponent to play. In hindsight, had we put two halves together like the second half, we may have gotten the win.”
With a surge of intensity, Michigan came out with a new, aggressive face in the second half. At the 60 minutes mark, senior Ryan Alexander received a ball played in from senior Adam Bruh at the center circle. Alexander got off a clear shot, but St. Louis goalkeeper Jeff Sackman was able to make the save.
Continuing to employ this more aggressive style of play, Michigan’s new tactical strategy proved to pay off. At 76:56, the Wolverines drew a St. Louis foul, setting up a free kick from Bruh. From 28 yards out, the senior captain beat Sackman to tie the game at one.
“When we tied the game, it really felt like we were going to win,” Burns said. “All of the momentum had shifted to our side.”
The Wolverines’ celebration only lasted a few minutes though. Just three minutes later, St. Louis answered Michigan’s score in a similar fashion – with a little bit of luck. The Billikens were awarded a 35-yard free kick after a Michigan foul. St. Louis’s Danny Wynn lined up for the kick, sending the ball into a wall of Michigan players. The shot just barely clipped one of the Michigan players, and, with Dzubay committed going one way in the goal box, the ball changed direction and was deflected into the net. After what Burns called the “dagger” of the game, St. Louis (3-4-1) was able to hold onto its lead for the 2-1 victory.
Besides the bit of bad luck on St. Louis’s second goal, Burns mentioned that Dzubay’s strong performance in the net was crucial. The senior tallied seven saves on the day.
“Dzubay played great,” Burns said. “He’s having a great season. He’s kept us in games long enough to win it, and he kept us in this one with some big saves. Unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out a way to win this one.”
Sporting the face of a young team was a common theme for Michigan this weekend. The Wolverines started six freshmen against St. Louis and five first-year players in its 2-2 double overtime tie against Dayton last Thursday. Despite not being able to add a “W” to its win column this weekend, Burns said that the weekend road trip provided several lessons for the team.
“There was a lack of experience (combined with) playing on the road in hostile environments with crowds that get underneath the skin of their opponents,” Burns said. “If you’re the away team, you have to have the experience to know how to handle that. When we set up the next road trip, I think (we will use this) experience that we have to be a bit more aggressive and certain players have to look to play more forward, penetrating balls versus just holding the possession. We will remind the team of this experience and hopefully get better.”