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Michigan women’s soccer season preview

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Everyone’s back for the Wolverines, who have the experience and firepower to compete with the top teams in the Big Ten.

COLLEGE WOMENS SOCCER: OCT 25 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Of the Big Ten’s 14 women’s soccer programs, 10 have won a conference tournament championship since 2000. Northwestern hasn’t won the tournament since it began in 1994, while Maryland and Rutgers have only been members of the Big Ten since 2014.

That leaves one team unaccounted for, and it’s a surprising one — Michigan.

What’s so surprising is that the Wolverines have been the farthest thing from bottom-dwellers over the last two decades. Since their last Big Ten Tournament crown in 1999, they’ve won 218 games, lost 148, and drawn 68. In conference play, their record stands at 107-71-44.

Aside from a down stretch in the late 2000s, Michigan has been a consistent presence in the top half of the league. It’s been 11 years since the Wolverines have had a losing season. They’ve qualified for the NCAA Tournament 11 times in the last 21 seasons, including seven Round of 32 nods, five Sweet 16 berths, and two quarterfinal appearances.

There aren’t many Big Ten programs more successful over the years than Michigan — and none with so little hardware to show for it.

The 2021 Wolverines have the talent to change that.

Due to COVID-19, the NCAA made last season a free year, and five Wolverine seniors — Nicki Hernandez, Sarah Stratigakis, Alia Martin, Hillary Beall, and Izzy Nino — took advantage of their fifth and final season of eligibility and opted to return to Ann Arbor. Also back are “traditional” seniors Meredith Haakenson and Raleigh Loughman and plenty of skilled underclassmen such as Jayde Riviere and Sammi Woods.

Most Big Ten teams return the bulk of their roster due to the free year. But Michigan welcomes back 99.8 percent of its minutes from last season, as well as every player who scored or assisted on a goal and its top two goaltenders. No other team in the conference can boast that same returning depth.

In 2019, Michigan lost an overtime heartbreaker to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, then fell to national runner-up North Carolina in the Sweet 16 to finish a 17-6-1 season. Therefore, its 5-3-3 campaign this spring might have rung a bit disappointing, especially considering COVID-19 denied them a chance at a BTT run. But if this group of Wolverines gel, they have the potential to make all that a distant memory.

Roster breakdown

With so much experience back, it’s a little hard to determine where to start. But if you don’t score, you can’t win, so upfront seems like a decent choice.

Michigan had one of the Big Ten’s most potent attacks last season, ranking third in goals (1.9), first in shots (15.6), and second in shots on goal per game (7.3). This performance came even as some Wolverines struggled to recapture their goalscoring form from 2019.

Hernandez is one to thank. With six goals, two assists, and 36 shots (24 on goal) this spring, the midfielder earned well-deserved All-Big Ten First Team honors. Stratigakis, the other fifth-year senior in Michigan’s midfield, is a full Canadian international who earned second-team All-America honors in 2019 after a seven-goal, 12-assist performance. Together, the two give the Wolverines an offensive engine few teams can slow or duplicate.

COLLEGE WOMENS SOCCER: OCT 25 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Loughman’s offensive output dropped from six goals and eight assists to just two assists last season, while Haakenson scored two goals in 11 games compared to her team-leading nine in 2019. Still, Loughman was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team, and the two seniors project to be weapons this season.

Skylar Anderson, like Loughman and Haakenson, is a fourth-year senior but doesn’t provide the scoring punch of the latter two. Instead, Anderson started all 11 games in a defensive midfield role last season.

Whenever Hernandez, Stratigakis, Loughman, and Haakenson no longer don the maize and blue, Kasey Lawrence could assume their mantle. As a freshman last season, playing mostly in an off-the-bench role, she ranked third on the team in scoring with two goals and a pair of assists.

Michigan is loaded at forward as well. Woods, a Saline product, burst onto the scene with four goals and three assists as a freshman last season. Despite starting just three games, she ranked second on the team in scoring behind Hernandez and her production could put her in line for an even bigger role as a sophomore.

Juniors Danielle Wolfe and Lily Farkas should play big roles in the attack as well. Wolfe scored seven goals in her debut season in 2019, but only found the net once this spring. Farkas, by contrast, saw her production bump up to two goals and the third-most shots on the team with 20.

The Wolverines struggled at times on defense last season, with only three teams in the Big Ten allowing more goals per game. But here, too, they have experience and talent in spades.

Martin, a two-time All-Big Ten First Team performer and member of the Hermann Trophy watchlist last season, is a firmly established presence at center-back. She rarely came off the pitch this spring, doing so for just four minutes in all, and should serve as Michigan’s anchor in every sense.

Martin is Martin, and in Sydney Shepherd and Janiece Joyner, the Wolverines have two seniors with a combined 69 career starts along the backline. But Riviere is perhaps the biggest name of them all. She earned her first cap for Canada’s senior team in 2017 as just a 16-year-old and has made 21 international appearances already, most recently helping her country win Olympic gold this summer.

Canada v Great Britain: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 4 Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

In goal is Beall, who’s started the last 45 games the Wolverines have played dating back to 2018. This spring, she made 52 saves with a .800 save percentage to earn All-Big Ten Third Team honors. As long as Beall’s healthy, the net is hers, but it doesn’t hurt to have another fifth-year senior backing her up in Nino.

It’s possible that a freshman or two breaks into Michigan’s setup as well, just as Woods and Lawrence did last season. Keep an eye on defender Tamia Tolbert, a member of the United States U18/19 Development Academy, and forward Syah Mangat, who’s part of Canada’s youth national team pool.

Schedule

  • August 19: at Butler (Big East Digital Network)
  • August 22: vs. Bowling Green (BTN+)
  • August 26: vs. Western Michigan
  • August 29: vs. Central Michigan
  • September 3: vs. USC
  • September 5: vs. DePaul
  • September 10: at Louisville
  • September 12: at Cincinnati
  • September 17: vs. Illinois
  • September 23: at Rutgers (BTN)
  • September 26: vs. Wisconsin
  • September 30: at Purdue
  • October 3: at Indiana (BTN)
  • October 10: at Nebraska
  • October 14: vs. Michigan State
  • October 17: at Ohio State
  • October 21: vs. Penn State (FS1)
  • October 24: vs. Maryland
  • October 29: Big Ten Tournament begins

Outlook

Michigan has plenty of talent, no question. But to be clear, this isn’t a championship-or-bust scenario — the Big Ten has no shortage of teams with high ability and high expectations.

Penn State was voted first in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches’ Poll, just as it’s been in every season since 2003. The Nittany Lions, ranked 10th nationally, will be tough to knock off — the Wolverines fell 4-1 to them last season — and so will No. 25 Rutgers, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. The Big Ten’s depth doesn’t stop there, as Iowa, last year’s Big Ten Tournament champs, was voted tied for just seventh.

Penn State has last year’s conference forward (Ally Schlegel) and midfielder (Sam Coffey) of the year. Rutgers boasts two All-Americans in Amirah Ali and Frankie Tagliaferri. Ohio State brings back Big Ten Defender of the Year Izzy Rodriguez, while Wisconsin’s Jordyn Bloomer has won Goalkeeper of the Year twice in a row.

What held Michigan back last season? Consistency, for one: the Wolverines scored 14 goals in an 11-day stretch which featured wins over bottom-feeders Nebraska, Michigan State, and Maryland, but were just 2-3-3 with seven goals otherwise. A team with the third-best scoring margin in the league shouldn’t be expected to finish seventh, but this is how it happens.

Meanwhile, Michigan was decidedly less potent against the conference’s upper half. The Wolverines scrapped out ties against Ohio State and Rutgers but falling to Indiana and Wisconsin.

One key could be the availability of Stratigakis and Riviere, who both missed Michigan’s first two contests due to national team duty. While it was fruitful for them — Stratigakis scored her first international goal on February 24 — having the two Canadian stars in the setup as early and as much as possible could help the Wolverines’ chemistry and give them the consistency they lacked this spring.

Ending a 22-year drought won’t be easy, but fourth-year head coach Jennifer Klein might have the team to do it. Michigan is just two years removed from a Big Ten Tournament championship game appearance and multi-week NCAA Tournament run and has depth, proven production, and international-level talent to match anyone in the conference. It’s time to see how it all comes together.