12/11/2010 – Michigan 1, Akron 2 – 17-5-3, season over
Because my one true soccer allegiance is to the USMNT, Friday's game against Akron was familiar. It followed the same script that Nats games against world powers do: show up, try really hard, get a lot of quality defending in emergencies, take advantage of one opportunity to score, spend most of the game trying to get the ball, and eventually lose.
At some point in the second half John Harkes said Akron "looked like a professional team" and the crowd gathered to watch couldn't even muster up a Cam Newton joke. We could only sigh in agreement and wait for the inevitable. If an Akron player had broken someone's foot it would have been the spiritual successor of last year's USA-Holland friendly in every way. Instead it was just 90%.
When the Yanks haven't followed that script it's been because they nicked an early goal, survived an avalanche of pressure thanks in large part to heroic goaltending, and maybe grabbed another on a counter. Michigan got only the first, and go out to superior competition. The Zips won the national title against an undefeated Louisville team and I bet there's some Zip fan out there thinking "how did we only put in three goals this weekend?" The road from MAC fan with MAC perspective to Brazilian is short indeed.
As for Michigan, no one can be disappointed with the run that saw them rip off an undefeated streak that took them to the Big Ten title and the final four after taking a 7-1 beating from this Akron team midseason. Michigan loses only a few players here and there and actually looked better after they took off senior Alex Wood for freshman Fabio Pereira; with the Saads returning and what I'm told are top-notch recruiting classes the last two years forming the bulk of the team this edition of "new Michigan sport to care about" should go better than the baseball team, which is still okay but failed to maintain its Fetter/Putnam/Abraham era national relevance and is now just another good mid-major.
That's for later, though. Right now I know why I got so annoyed with all the "be our kicker" jokes unleashed at Justin Meram throughout the year: he's got a little bit of magic in him, the kind of thing that Denard Robinson brought to the football team and has been frustratingly absent at Yost for a couple seasons. When the ball is at his feet, something awesome is or could or will and has happened.
That should mean something other than "I wonder if that guy can hit a 35-yarder." I hope that in ten years I remember him like I do Mike Comrie, as the guy who cemented a fandom. He opened a door; here's to Saads and Brazilians and Basically Eckstein and Steve Burns walking through it.
Blame-y section. So Akron really, really deserved to win that game but the frustrating part is that since Michigan did an excellent job limiting their opportunities, if not their time on the ball, they only had a few truly quality chances. They put most of them directly into Blais's chest.
With the Meram zinger that game was there for the taking, and the main reason they didn't take it was Blais. Getting beat near post on a shot as far out as Kitchen's equalizer is on the goalie, and while the second goal was a massive marking failure a ball that lands well within the six yard box is one that Blais has to come for. He made a good diving stop on a deflected ball late but when you can plausibly take the heat on both opponent goals you've had a bad day.
Additional impressions. It was hard to get a ton out of the game with the liveblog—I always forget how splitting your attention makes it hard to remember anything—but I thought Opare was a close second to Meram as Michigan's MOTM. He was clearly the smoother of the two central defenders and by the end of the game I had begun to have some confidence he could deal with even the rampaging Akron offense.
I think Michigan's failings largely laid with the other three defenders and Shaw, who were all okay to good defensively but could not cope with the Akron pressure and ended up chucking long balls or just giving the ball away. Michigan's offensive players are not large and against a top-quality opponent they're going to have to play through the midfield, but the linking play was extremely poor. Wood probably had a hand in that since they went away from him and to Pereira, as well.
The lady doth. Presented without comment:
Defender Zarek Valentin, who also played for the Bucks, said the Zips' victory should counter the losing image of Northeast Ohio.
"People think about Akron, they think about LeBron James and that whole fiasco," Valentin said. "This provides a good spirit on our campus."
The future. The only starters Michigan loses are the two outside backs, Wood, and Meram. It seems clear they'll go with Pereira to replace Wood. Tennant seemed like JAG to me and Michigan should find someone okay to replace him. Quijano and especially Meram are major losses; Michigan maintaining their current level will be a matter of finding reasonable replacements and having the rest of the team step forward as they enter sophomore and junior years. I'm not up on soccer recruiting enough to know how likely either of those things is—I tried, but I couldn't find much of anything.