If you told the Michigan soccer team back on Oct. 19 that they would get a second crack at Akron, it’s hard to know how they would react.
Back then, the high-flying Zips attack humbled the Wolverines 7-1, leaving their NCAA Tournament aspirations in precarious standing. But instead of hanging their heads, the Wolverines dug deep and have put together a nine-game winning streak to make a first-ever College Cup appearance that will be a rematch of that October evening.
Plenty of lessons were learned that night, and head coach Steve Burns has seen improvement in several areas, but noted a serious change in the team’s defensive performance.
“One of the things that helped us since that loss to Akron is that we’ve become a much better team fundamentally with how we defend, on a team level and on an individual level,” he told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s helped us to get the ball back quicker, helped us to maintain possession, it’s helped us with how we attack.”
Since losing that game, Michigan has gone on a tear. Averaging three goals a game, the Wolverines have scored 27 goals in their nine-game winning streak that included a Big Ten tournament win over Penn State, and last weekend’s overtime win over Maryland in College Park.
One of the biggest reasons for that turnaround has been the play of Michigan’s attacking trio of Soony Saad, his brother Hamoody and Justin Meram. The three have carried the offense – scoring 41 of 52 total goals, good for 79 percent of the offense.
And while those three have really come into their own the last half of the season, others have risen to the occasions to push the Wolverines even further. Fabio Perierra scored against Maryland to punch the ticket. Alex Wood has been steady in the midfield, while Jeffrey Quijano scored a timely goal in the NCAA Tournament.
[inline_node:324688]It’s been a whirlwind rise for the Michigan men’s soccer program. Back in the late 1990s, Burns was the coach of nothing more than a club team. The program finally reached varsity status in 2000, and 11 years later, the program is enjoying its best season yet.
A win over Akron would certainly mark the biggest achievement of the program’s short history. Achieving that won’t be an easy task in a clash of two teams of similar style. Both teams like to be on the ball, and for the Wolverines, it’s going to be a matter of creating and taking chances when they do have possession.
“We expect that they’re going to have moments where they’re going to have more possession than us," Burns said, "and so it’s that comfort level of knowing what we’re looking for when we get the ball back from them, how we can go at them. We know Akron’s a good team, and it’s not like we’re trying to hide that from our guys. We knew Maryland was a good team also. We’re going to have our chances, and we’re probably going to have fewer chances than Akron."
Putting in a strong defensive effort is paramount if Michigan want to keep their streaking season going. The Wolverines managed only three shutouts through 24 games on the year, and having conceded seven against Akron in their previous meeting, they will really need to harness that defensive improvement.
Burns also viewed it as a chance to measure how far they’ve come since the first matchup with the Zips.
“The thing we’re most excited about is that we get to measure ourselves again from where we were Oct. 19 and where we are on Dec. 10,” he said.
No matter how it’s painted, Michigan sits as outsiders in this stage of the College Cup. That doesn’t bother Burns, who likes where his team is at this stage of the season, and is relishing another crack at the Zips.
“I like where we are right now, we’re better defensively and we’re really firing at all cylinders on attack,” he said.