It was yet another season to remember for Michigan soccer fans. The 2018 Wolverines will go down in team history as one that provided an NCAA Tournament win in one of the most thrilling matches you could imagine. While the season ended earlier than the squad may have hoped, the results all throughout the season gave fans reason to smile.
Michigan started the season with an opening match loss at home to Tulsa. This opening defeat did not phase them. The Wolverines followed up with a nine-match unbeaten run, included eight wins over the nine games. This stretch of form set the rest of the season in motion and gave them the confidence they needed to play up to the standard of a top three team in the Big Ten by the end of the season. When thinking of top matches of the season, a top three stands out pretty clearly for the Wolverines.
Without question, the penalty shootout thriller in the NCAA Tournament with the Wolverines knocking off Princeton must make that list. Heroics from plenty of the players, notably Henry Mashburn for his clutch saves, and Noah Kleedtke for his game-tying goal during regulation, made that a night to remember for the Wolverines in cold and snowy conditions.
Of course, the Wolverines may not even have been in the tournament without a final regular season victory over Maryland at UMSS. Maryland equalized late in the game and it seemed that the Terrapins were set to snag perhaps a point from Michigan. Instead, Jack Hallahan ended the match just 33 seconds into overtime with his golden goal. The victory clinched third in the Big Ten for Michigan and helped propel them into the NCAA Tournament with a season-defining victory.
Rounding out a top three, one could not forget the eventful early-season affair at home against Western Michigan. In early-September, with a massive Michigan Ultras presence as the first game with students back on campus, Michigan took a 2-0 lead with just under half an hour remaining in the match, but the Broncos leveled over ten minutes with only eight minutes to play. Michigan took advantage of a WMU red card and Ivo Cerda scored in the eighth minute of the first OT period providing the Wolverines’ fans with an exciting night of soccer.
By any metric, Michigan’s players had an incredibly successful season. Michigan had a pair of 20-point scorers with Jack Hallahan (24) and Umar Farouk Osman (22) and Hallahan himself won Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team. He had an unbelievable year full of individual bits of quality that made fans’ jaws drop. He led the team in assists with eight and finished second to Osman in goals, also with eight. Osman had to adapt to a central midfield role with the injury to Ivo Cerda, but he continued to learn and produce. His nine goals and generally strong performances were good enough to put him on the All-Big Ten Second Team.
Hallahan was a junior this season, and Osman a sophomore, but seniors set the tone for this Wolverines side. Two earned all-Big Ten honors while another was a surprise star of the season. Robbie Mertz was named All-Big Ten First Team and did not need to pad the stat sheet to make an impact. He led the Wolverines’ press with intensity and possessed outstanding leadership in midfield. Marcello Borges was All-Big Ten Second Team and constantly dissuaded opponents from attacking the side of the pitch he manned while getting forward with ease. Finally, Noah Kleedtke was called upon to lead the line with Mohammed Zakyi’s injuries over the season. In response, he tallied four goals, including massive ones to level games against Michigan State and Princeton. He is an outstanding success story and a player fans will look fondly upon.
Of course, you cannot talk about this side without mentioning the iron men of the side. Henry Mashburn played every minute of this season in net while in the outfield, Jackson Ragen played all but three minutes for the Wolverines. The two sophomores were key to the success Michigan had. Mashburn’s penalty heroics capped off a solid season in net. With two more years in maize and blue, his development will be a treat to watch. Ragen’s leadership in the back earned him plenty of trust from head coach Chaka Daley. He is sure to be an ever-present force in the back line for the next two years.
Speaking of that, let’s talk about the future. Michigan loses senior leadership in midfield with the graduation of Mertz and Cerda and also in defense with Daniel Mukuna, the supremely solid center back. They also lose a bit of depth in Kleedtke and Peter Brown. Presuming no unexpected underclassmen going pro, the attack seems to be automatically decided with Zakyi, Hallahan, and Osman, but what do fans have to look forward to?
The NCAA Tournament gave fans a glimpse of what to possibly expect. Borges’ late-game injury to Princeton is gutting for him and the team, but in a tough spot it was freshman Declan Gaffney who put in a stellar 110 minutes. On the other side of full back, it was Joel Harrison also making his first start on defense, also putting in a superb 110 minutes. Harrison had plenty of hype surrounding him upon entrance at Michigan and while injuries slowed him, he figures to be fully fit for his junior season. Combined with Abdou Samake and Ragen, the back four for next season would figure to be straight forward.
We already know that Marc Ybarra is going to remain his ever stable self in midfield. As a sophomore, he only continued to shine and seemed to rarely put a foot wrong in his run of play. Questions of who will replace Mertz and Cerda are less straightforward. One probability would be Austin Swiech returning to his more favored midfield role after a successful year-long stint at right back. You see on professional levels a young-midfielder playing full back to get game time. Perhaps that was this season for the sophomore out of Grand Rapids. That other open midfield spot could see Carlos Tellez or Kevin Buca get some run after more play time has gone under their belt in the latter stages of this season.
It has well and truly been a successful season for Michigan. We must thank the seniors for their dedication and commitment to the program, and wish them well in their future careers, whether that includes soccer, or whatever they may pursue. It is always tough to say goodbye to a season, but the hope is always there for next season. The key is now to continue building off a stellar two-year stretch into next year as mental preparations for next year have surely already begun.