Playing at home has its advantages — there’s no travel, and players are afforded the comfort of sleeping in their own beds and eating home-cooked meals.
But for the Michigan women’s soccer team (6-2-1), competing in Ann Arbor also means playing in the Michigan Soccer Stadium: a new venue with an inspirational and vibrant atmosphere.
“The new stadium has been a really great addition for us and we all love it,” senior defender Kristen Goncalves said. “It does provide a fun and energetic atmosphere for us to play in. We have so many more fans at home and they’re so great and energetic.”
Since the erection of the U-M Soccer Complex a little more than a year ago, the Wolverines are 10-2-3 playing on their home field, outscoring opponents 31-12.
Some might attribute their home success to the extra rest time they are provided by not having to travel and an improved roster in recent seasons. But Goncalves believes that their recent dominance at home can be credited to their new stadium, which provides them with extra motivation and encouragement when they step into the locker room and head out onto the field.
“Having a place to call home and coming into our locker room, it gives us a sense of pride and reminds us what we are all playing and fighting for,” Goncalves said. “We are so lucky to be playing for Michigan, and having facilities like these is just a good reminder.”
Goncalves remembers the feeling of not having a home field all too well.
In her freshman season, Michigan played its “home” games in three different locations. While the new soccer stadium was being built, the Wolverines played just two home games in Ann Arbor while the rest of its home games were split between Ypsilanti and Plymouth, Mich. She remembers the unfamiliarity she felt playing her home games on a field covered with Eastern Michigan signs.
It “just didn’t feel like home,” she said.
In the subsequent season, Goncalves and her teammates were lucky enough to play all of their home games in Ann Arbor. But while they had the fortune of playing their home games on campus, the new stadium still hadn’t been built yet, so they played their home games without the confines of a stadium. Their home-field advantage was mitigated by playing on a basic soccer field with only a tiny section of bleachers — seats that were barely filled for games.
Michigan coach Greg Ryan — who was also in his first year when the Wolverines played their home games in Ypsilanti and Plymotuh — insists that Michigan suffered immensely from not having a place to call home.
The extended traveling and the lack of adequate facilities took a toll on Michigan. In his first two years, the Wolverines posted a mediocre 7-5-5 record in their home games, barely outscoring their opponents 27-22 during that two-year period.
“My first year, we only played two home games (in Ann Arbor),” Ryan said. “We were playing all over the place and it was very, very difficult. The next year, we were able to play on our field, but it certainly didn’t have that stadium atmosphere. I think that part of our success (at home) is attributable to this beautiful stadium that the players love to play in. I also think that another part of our success are the fans that create a great atmosphere at our home games.”
For Goncalves and the few others who experienced playing home games away from Ann Arbor, there appears to be a greater sense of appreciation for the new facilities and the excitement of the fans who come out to support them.
“It’s really nice to play at home,” Goncalves said. “I don’t know if it helps us win, but it definitely makes it a lot more fun.”