EAST LANSING – Men’s soccer coach Steve Burns has done everything possible this season to instill in his team the same “Ya Gotta Believe” attitude employed by the Boston Red Sox, last year’s World Series Champions.
But on Sunday, the Wolverines didn’t believe and lost the Big Bear game to Michigan State, 2-0. In doing so, the Wolverines extended their losing streak to four.
The score does not tell the tale of a Michigan team that was once again outplayed despite its ability. Burns said that the loss boiled down to his team’s fear of losing.
“I tell the team that in soccer – as in life – there are three important things: energies, abilities and fears,” the six-year head coach said. “We have the first two, but right now we are playing with fear. We are afraid to lose.”
From the opening tap, the Spartans dominated the field of play. Continued forays into Michigan’s defensive zone had the Wolverines’ backline backpedaling as the speedy Michigan State strikers moved the ball crisply and applied pressure.
The Michigan defense finally cracked in the 31st minute when the Spartans’ Ryan McMahen fired a shot past Michigan goalie Peter Dzubay from just outside the18-yard box. The goal was McMahen’s seventh of the season.
The Wolverines defense, led by senior captain Ryan Sterba, failed to respond after that and gave up the second goal just over 10 minutes later – when Kenzo Webster chipped the ball over Dzubay’s outstretched hand from 16 yards out.
“I played scared in the first half,” Sterba said. “I was afraid to step up to the ball. It’s my job to remain calm and emit confidence. Instead I played on my heels and worried about making mistakes. When I do that, so does the rest of the defense.”
Coach Burns looked to Sterba at halftime to step up and lead.
“I told Ryan that is was his job to take a deliberate aggressive approach and get the team back into the game,” Burns said.
Michigan’s defense was a different unit after halftime. They pressured the ball and sparked numerous counterattacks toward the Michigan State goal.
While the defense improved its play after halftime, the offense still could not sustain pressure in the second half.
Michigan’s best chance came in the 61st minute, when freshman defender Chase Tennant fired a free kick above the wall and on goal. The shot would have gone in but for a spectacular save by Michigan State goalie Jason Tillman, who leaped up to tap the shot over the crossbar.
Burns was disappointed that his offense did not create the chances it is capable of.
“The offense needs to play stronger and have a physical presence in the 18-yard box,” he said. “Our players can’t be scared to make a run in there.”
In the end, fear was the story of the day. Both on offense and defense, Michigan played without confidence.
“It’s all about the players believing that they can win games,” Burns said. “We are a lot better than our record shows. From now on we have to make sure we go into each game with a positive attitude.”
Michigan hopes to turn its attitude and season around when it returns home for two important contests. The Wolverines face Wisconsin-Milwaukee Thursday at 5 p.m. at the U-M Soccer Field and hosts Wisconsin on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.