Written by: Ryan Makuch
The first regular season match of the year is just over a week away for the Wolverines, and that means it is time to get back into the soccer state of mind. The University of Michigan is coming off a landmark season with a regular season Big Ten Championship, the first in program history, and their second NCAA Tournament appearance under head coach Chaka Daley.
Despite the losses of Francis Atuahene to the MLS Draft and Billy Stevens to graduation, the Big Ten will remain onred alert as those two starting roles will likely be filled by a pair of prospects as a continuation of the youth movement that the Michigan Soccer program has been happy to see develop over the course of last season.
Underclassmen already surely locked into a starting role include midfielder Marc Ybarra and forwards Umar Farouk Osman and Mohammed Zakyi. Ybarra is coming off not just a season worthy of a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team with the Wolverines, but also an exceptional year with the NPSL’s AFC Ann Arbor, a side that won the NPSL Midwest Great Lakes Conference for the second straight year. He earned acclaim as an NPSL all-conference selection as the heartbeat of that midfield and one would reasonably expect much of the same from him in his second year with the University of Michigan as the deeper number six in the Wolverines’ midfield.
Looking at the two sophomore forwards, it seems clear that both will be crucial to the side this season. Zakyi battled some fitness concerns early in the season but recovered to the tune of six goals and four assists in the 16 games he played. Michigan Soccer’s number nine has the strength on top to fend off center backs but also enough pace to get behind them and it seems to be a sure thing to see him leading the line for the Wolverines. His country-mate, Osman, was a choice to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and had a strong season, but the Wolverines will hope for even more from their new number ten, especially in terms of end product. Osman would not have been given Atuahene’s number if big things weren’t expected from him. He seems to be a shoe-in to replace Francis in the starting eleven, most likely on the left side of a front three.
The other hole in the eleven for Michigan is at right back with Billy Stevens’ graduation. Perhaps the most probable man to replace him in the starting eleven, and the man who was given the number four shirt upon its opening, is another sophomore, Joel Harrison. Harrison missed the entirety of 2017 with injury but his first season in maize and blue could see him play a key role. Despite being perhaps a bit more comfortable at center back, Harrison was recruited to play both center and right back. He stands 5’11” and his skill set from the time spent at center back should translate over to being a similarly strong defender on the right. Harrison has experience in the USL with the Vancouver Whitecaps 2 where he made four appearances and also was a member of the Canadian U-18 National Team. Right back is one of the more interesting positions to watch on the Wolverine side, but Harrison looks to have the skills to make it his own.
Two more sophomores seem to be vital to the campaign: keeper Henry Mashburn and defender Jackson Ragen. Both of these men will likely be in positional battles but either man could come out on top of their respective battles. Mashburn finished the season as the starting goalie for the Wolverines, but junior Andrew Verdi will certainly be in contention for the starting spot. This figures to be the position that is still the most ‘up in the air’ with the Wolverines and could continue to take shape as the season progresses. Ragen, like Harrison, also has experience in the USL with an MLS second team (Seattle Sounders 2). Jackson saw time in 16 matches, starting ten, and snagging a goal as well, last season. He stands 6’5” and while he played holding mid and center back last season, he is listed only as a defender this season and is listed 15 pounds heavier than last season, a good sign for the Wolverines who would love to see continued physicality from their young defender. Abdou Samake and Daniel Mukuna were so solid when both were fit last season and they figure to be the first-choice pairing next season once again. Still, Ragen should certainly be able to contend for play time and see a good amount of it.
Covering this stellar sophomore class can almost make one forget about the incoming freshman class which is also strong. Derick Broche should be able to immediately be an option for Chaka Daley off the bench at the number nine role when Zakyi needs a rest. Another one to watch is left back Declan Gaffney who comes to Michigan as a top-60 recruit in the nation and seems set to be the heir apparent to the left back mantle of Marcello Borges. There is also midfield depth as a result of the class in two Michiganders, Saline native Aidan Nam and Kevin Buca from Rochester.
This Michigan Soccer program is one that is built to last. The youth of this team does not mean they are an inexperienced group. They return nine of the top eleven minute-getters from last season and two of the three top scorers. The growth from the 2016 to 2017 seasons was nothing short of exceptional, but the sustainability of this team is the primary reason for Michigan soccer fans to be smiling this season.