In 2017, Michigan completed one of the great turnarounds in recent Big Ten men’s soccer history, rebounding from an eighth-place finish the year before winning the conference’s regular-season title.
Three freshmen — Marc Ybarra, Umar Farouk Osman and Mohamed Zakyi — played integral roles. Ybarra was the holding midfielder who could string a pass if need be. Osman was a dynamic winger, the Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school. Zakyi, a gifted striker who tied for third on the team in scoring.
Joel Harrison and Austin Swiech were freshmen in 2017 too. Harrison missed the year due to injury, while Swiech played in just three games. Still, they could say they were members of the Wolverines’ first-ever Big Ten title team.
Four years later, Ybarra, Osman, Zakyi, Harrison and Swiech are the last vestiges of that team.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, all five had the option to leave school after last spring’s abbreviated season or return for one more go. With their choice of the latter, they penciled themselves in as leaders, a far cry from the rookies they once were.
“We’re really lucky to have those guys back,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley told MGoBlueTV two weeks ago. “They’ve all contributed greatly to our growth as a program.”
Bookending their time in Ann Arbor with another title might be unrealistic for Michigan’s five seniors. For one, there’s Indiana, the league’s traditional juggernaut and last season’s NCAA runners-up, and this season’s likely overwhelming favorite. The Wolverines also have to find a replacement for 6-foot-5 centerback Jackson Ragen, the 2021 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, an MLS SuperDraft selection and their leading goal-scorer last spring.
But there’s still plenty of experience in Ann Arbor, supplemented by young talents like sophomores Bryce Blevins and Quin Rogers. As a result, Michigan will be hoping to build off of last spring’s third-place, 6-4-1 campaign, led by five players who have done it before and have one chance to do it again.
With Ragen — who played all 1,031 minutes last season — playing professionally now, Ybarra is Michigan’s unquestioned fulcrum. Ybarra barely left the pitch himself last season, playing all but 20 minutes, and tied for the Big Ten lead in assists with six, scored two goals and was named the conference’s Midfielder of the Year. The Skyline High product has grown his role every season, and his passing should be key for an offense that scored 1.54 goals per match last year, third in the conference.
Midfield might be the Wolverines’ strongest unit, and not just because of Ybarra. Kevin Buca, a fourth-year senior, was third on the team in scoring with three goals and three assists last spring. Cameron Martin, another senior, started nine games and scored one goal in his first season after transferring from the University of San Francisco.
Blevins and Rogers were both named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team last season. Blevins started seven games and scored three goals. Rogers started 10, and while he didn’t score, he took the most shots on the team with 19.
Versatility will be key for Michigan, with several players on the roster listed as either midfielders or forwards. Among those players is Zakyi, who didn’t play last season but has scored 11 goals in his college career. There’s also Inaki Rodriguez, a shot-happy junior who fired 15 last spring, including a team-high eight attempts on goal.
Swiech, who had four assists last year, is one of several players listed in both midfield and defense. So is Harry Pithers, a junior who appeared in nine games and started four last spring.
Osman scored nine goals in 2018 but has since moved to defense, where his speed on the flanks can stand out. He started 10 matches last season, one of just five Wolverines to do so.
Harrison played and started Michigan’s first seven matches before suffering a season-ending injury. While not built like a prototypical centerback, standing just 6-foot-0, the Vancouver Whitecaps draft pick was named All-Big Ten First Team last season.
Someone will have to fill Ragen’s shoes, and based on size alone, the 6-foot-6 Brennan Callow, who played 223 minutes and started two games last season, seems like a candidate. Sophomore Jens Hoff and senior Declan Gaffney also got some playing time along the backline last season.
Senior Derick Broche (10 games, two starts) and junior Moshtaba Al-Hasnawi (11 games, five starts) are the Wolverines’ most experienced players who are listed primarily as forwards this season. Expect juniors Christian Pulselli, who came off the bench eight times last spring, and Evan Rasmussen, a big 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, to see substantial action as well.
In goal, Michigan is in good hands with junior Owen Finnerty, who took the starting job as a freshman, who has recorded eight clean sheets in 17 career starts and posted a .706 save percentage last season.
While playing for Columbia, Uriel Zeitz, the 2019 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, leads Michigan’s class of five newcomers. Zeitz scored five goals and four assists in his lone season with the Lions, and in a June release, Daley described him as an attacking midfielder with incisive passing ability.
Other newcomers include Michael Leon — a Ghanaian midfielder who, like countrymen Osman and Francis Atuahene, played prep soccer at the Hotchkiss Academy in Connecticut before continuing to Michigan — and Jason Bucknor, a versatile player who Daley expects to contribute immediately.
- August 26 (4 p.m.) vs. Detroit Mercy
- August 29 (2 p.m.) at Oakland
- September 2 (7 p.m.) vs. Duke
- September 6 (4 p.m.) vs. Loyola Chicago
- September 10 (7 p.m.) vs. New Hampshire
- September 13 (7 p.m.) vs. Chicago State
- September 17 (6:30 p.m.) at Maryland (BTN)
- September 21 (7 p.m.) vs. Notre Dame (ESPNU)
- September 26 (4 p.m.) vs. Northwestern
- October 1 (5 p.m.) at Indiana (ESPNU)
- October 5 (8 p.m.) vs. Michigan State (BTN)
- October 10 (2 p.m.) at Penn State (BTN)
- October 15 (7 p.m.) vs. Wisconsin
- October 18 (7 p.m.) at Akron
- October 22 (7 p.m.) vs. Rutgers
- October 26 (6 p.m.) at Ohio State (BTN)
Michigan will feature plenty of creativity in the midfield with Ybarra, Buca, Zeitz and company, and a defense led by Harrison, Osman and Finnerty should give the Wolverines a chance in most games. There’s little question that after a down 2016, Daley has built a foundation in Ann Arbor, one that looks like it should last even after the last of the 2017 team departs.
As far as the Big Ten goes, Indiana is easily the team to beat. Most of the team is back from last spring, including Hermann Trophy runner-up Victor Bezerra, who scored 12 goals and had four assists last season. Penn State, the No. 11 team in the United Soccer Coaches’ preseason rankings, returns almost everybody as well.
While the Big Ten preseason poll has not been released yet, Maryland received 17 votes in the United Soccer Coaches poll, ahead of Michigan, which received four votes as the fourth-highest ranked team in the Big Ten.
In the Big Ten, a league that generally sends around four or five teams to the NCAA Tournament in any given year, that puts the Wolverines in a solid position to make it a fourth appearance in five seasons if they can play to their potential.
On occasion, they showed they could compete even higher last spring — a double-overtime, 1-0 loss against Indiana proved as much — and in 2019, their last “full” season, they lost to the Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament championship game on penalties.
If Michigan’s freshman class of 2017 has one more bit of magic in them, who’s to say the Wolverines can’t get over that hump?