The biggest game on the schedule (my personal schedule, at least) is here. What should we expect this evening in Ultimate Soccer Arenas?
Detroit offense v. Michigan defense
The Titans moved in fits and starts against Ohio State, but it’s fair to say that even an improving Michigan team doesn’t have quite the established track record of success of the Buckeyes (despite OSU replacing much of its defensive corps this offseason).
The Titans’ offense is going to be relatively attack-driven, as it has been since I can remember, with some bombs from outside. A huge question in this game specifically is the availability of UDM junior attack Mark Anstead. He’s been the Titans’ leading scorer (or close to it – two points off Shayne Adams in 2015) for some time now, but didn’t play against the Bucks. The Wolverines don’t have that shutdown longpole yet – or at least one isn’t established yet – so if Anstead plays, he provides some tough matchups for the Maize and Blue. Sophomore Matt Vangalen came out of relative obscurity to light up the Buckeyes (two goals and all three UDM assists), and some of the usual suspects from the past couple years – Sean Birney, Alec Gilhooly, et al – are around, but a game-changer… uh… changes the game.
Detroit’s turnovers will also be an issue. Again, Michigan may not have quite the defensive personnel of Ohio State, but the Buckeyes managed to cause seven turnovers last weekend – and the Titans gave it away eight times on their own. A more aggressive Michigan team seems to be in the cards through two games of 2017, and given the longtime bugaboo of the Titans, that may be something that helps the Wolverines control the game defensively.
Michigan’s Tommy Heidt has had two solid games between the pipes, with a .694 save percentage early in the year. However, even the oft-inaccurate Titans will be the best-shooting team U-M has faced so far, by any reasonable expectation.
Michigan offense v. Detroit defense
As much as I think Tommy Heidt is a nice goalie, there’s no question that Jason Weber is the better keeper – perhaps best overall player – in this game. The matchup between him and a pretty good set of Michigan attackmen (and a couple key midfielders) could determine the outcome in this one. A hot performance from Weber can be an outstanding equalizer, even if the Wolverines look a bit stronger in other areas.
That the Titans’ defense still seemed to be figuring things out against Ohio State (.467 offensive efficiency for the Bucks, with Weber notching just a .440 save percentage) is a little troublesome. The balance across Michigan’s offensive unit, with Ian King able to feed one week and score the next, and augmented by the likes of Brent Noseworthy, Rocco Sutherland, and Pat Tracy at attack, plus the likes of Mikie Schlosser in the midfield, makes for an intimidating matchup for a team that isn’t settled in after losing a bunch of major contributors.
When Michigan has settled possessions, there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to work their way to a good look. Detroit isn’t pressing out to cause the takeaways, but the tradeoff of giving U-M time, rather than opening up the inside, is that the Maize and Blue have a chance to get the ball to their playmakers. Weber will have to make some very good stops.
Possession and transition
The faceoff battle should be intriguing. Detroit’s Ben Gjokaj dominated a very good faceoff specialist in Ohio State’s Jake Withers last weekend, including a very impressive 10 ground balls on 15 wins (and four of the five that he didn’t earn the ground ball were violations, so no GB was awarded to anybody – though a little sketchy scorekeeping probably inflates his number, it can only be so far off).
Meanwhile, Mike McDonnell has had a couple good but not awe-inspiring games at the dot. Will he be able to perform agains the player who appears to be the best he’s faced so far this year? There’s noise in faceoff stats, so it’s tough to say whether Withers is in for a down year, had a bad game, etc., but the same could be said for those against whom McDonnell has faced off.
Michigan’s ride and clear have both been outstanding. U-M has failed just one clear, and has held two opponents to .833 total, albeit one first-year team and a Lafayette squad that may be in for a second-straight rough year. Given that the Maize and Blue haven’t emphasized the ride in a couple years, don’t expect that they’re actively forcing these failed clears with pressure, so much as letting the opponent mess up on their own.
Meanwhile, UDM had a near-perfect clearing game against Ohio State, and held the Buckeyes to 15/19 on the clear. Like Michigan, the Titans have stepped back from a fun pressure style defensively in the past couple years, so it’s possible we just saw luck of the draw in the Woody Hayes Athletic center.
Michigan played an extremely sloppy game in terms of penalties against Lafayette, and wasn’t particularly clean against an overmatched Cleveland State squad, either. All told, five of opponents’ 14 goals on the year have come with the Wolverines at a disadvantage. Given that the Titans have been a pretty good EMO team for several years running (even when they’ve struggled on the 6v6 offense), that could be an area in which they can capitalize.
On the other side, Detroit gave up four extra-man opportunities to Ohio State, which isn’t so bad, but they did allow the Buckeyes to convert three of them. Michigan is 2/2 on the EMO this year, so they aren’t drawing a ton of flags, but when they do, they convert.
This is a reversal from previous years, where the Titans were playing a bit sloppy while Michigan was scrappy-but-clean. Can the tables turn in this one, or will the rivalry implications make it heated on both sides? No way to tell until they strap it up.
This has always been one of the more fun games for me to cover, and most frustrating when it’s canceled (as has happened due to weather twice since Michigan was elevated to varsity status). Both teams have only played indoors so far this year, so there’s no advantage there, and it should be a good old-fashioned rivalry contest.
- Gjokaj wins the faceoff battle, but on draws where he doesn’t win the ground ball, the Wolverines will end up with more of the loose ones than do the Titans. The wing play will be key, and it’s up to Gjokaj to take care of business for himself, at times.
- Ian King will have a balanced game, rather than the pendulum swinging hard one way or the other. He’ll both score and assist, and while he may not put a huge day on the scoreboard, he’ll be the key offensive player for the Wolverines regardless of whether the stats show it.
- If Mark Anstead doesn’t play, I have a hard time seeing how the Titans have a big day offensively. They’ll still get their opportunities, but hitting double-digits without Anstead available seems to be out of the question.
- Jason Weber will prove to be the best overall player in the game, but does he have the defense around him for that to matter much? Even if he lets in some goals, they won’t be looks that he should have saved – or that he had much of a chance at.
While the rivalry factor can be an equalizer (and, in all fairness, this is a game that means more to the Titans than it probably does to Michigan), I can’t get over the trajectory of the scores since the first game in this series: Detroit +4, Michigan +1 in OT, Michigan +9… that’s a trend toward the Maize and Blue, as their roster fills out with high-level talent. That can do little other than plateau at some point soon, but the talent gap seems to be growing. Although a couple individual performances can be enough to bring this one much closer, a 17-8 Michigan win seems likely.