Steve Burns revels in UM's success

12/8/2010 - NCAA Men's Soccer

Michigan's men's soccer team has made the College Cup for the first time in program history … and no one knows that history better than coach Steve Burns.

He played for the Wolverines club team while attending college there in the 1980s. He later coached the club team when his salary for an entire year probably didn't even cover his average expenses for a month.

He earned his "real" living coaching youth soccer and as a business entrepreneur with his wife, Judy.

"You have to give a lot of credit to spouses of coaches who prop you up when you're trying to make it in coaching," Burns said. "I had realized that soccer was that passionate thread in my life, and what I wanted to do."

And he knew where he wanted to do it, having moved to Michigan when he was 8 years old and grown up there. But it wasn't until 1999 that the school made the transition to having men's soccer as a varsity sport.

When that happened, Burns was right there to continue leading the program. You can imagine all of this raced through his mind Saturday when the No. 10-seed Wolverines upset No. 2-seed Maryland 3-2 in double overtime in College Park, Md., and reached the semifinals of the NCAA tournament -- Michigan's first College Cup berth in men's soccer.

The Wolverines (17-4-3), led by scoring stars Soony Saad and Justin Meram, have reached a pinnacle that at one point must have seemed a rather distant dream for Burns.

"I guess I would describe myself as that grinder kind of guy," Burns said. "Certainly, there were a lot of people involved who supported the program all along the way. We've got an athletic department that believed in it. The timing was great after Michigan had won a national championship in football in 1997. It was just a good time for athletics here.

"We had won a club championship in 1997 and backed it up in 1998. And that really did help us get a head start on the program becoming varsity."

The men's and women's teams at Michigan both have benefited from a soccer complex that opened in 2008 but was fully finished earlier this fall. The stadium part of it holds 2,200 fans and gives Michigan soccer its own mini "Big House."

The Michigan men's hockey team will face Michigan State at the real Big House in an outdoor game at Michigan Stadium on Saturday. Meanwhile, Burns and his players hope that their season will still be alive at that point in decidedly warmer Santa Barbara, Calif.

For that to be the case, Michigan will have to upset No. 3 seed Akron in Friday's semifinals, and in doing so totally reverse the outcome of the teams' meeting earlier this season.

On Oct. 19 at Akron, the Wolverines "got the snot kicked out of us," Burns said, almost cheerfully. There's a good reason why: He knows it was bad-tasting medicine that was good for his players.

In that 7-1 loss, Michigan was overwhelmed. But the Wolverines weren't demoralized by it. Just the opposite. They haven't lost since, a stretch of nine victories in a row.

"We were humbled," Burns said of facing the Zips. "It started in pregame with how great their crowd was, and Akron's a very, very good team. It was 3-1 and we had a great chance, but their keeper made a big save. Then it was 4-1, and then…

"When you get humbled like that, you have to see what are you doing that needs to change. We looked at our team defense and individual defending, and they just weren't good enough. Since then we've been doing one exercise specifically to address that."

It's called the SOG (shot on goal) drill that puts players in uncomfortable positions defensively and then forces them to prevent a shot from happening. If they don't, they must leave the field.

"You have to get the right positioning and know how to break the guy down," Burns said. "And you have to be patient and know where your help is."

Patience, as mentioned, was something Burns had to have as he shepherded the program from club to varsity status. He had a degree in aerospace engineering at Michigan, but realized while in the process of earning it that his heart wasn't in engineering.

In the years after graduating, he and his wife had a couple of successful businesses, one of which involved work in Costa Rica. There, Burns saw an example of the global reverence for soccer, and he fully recognized that's the way he felt about the game, too. He went back to earn a master's degree at Michigan while he coached the club team and worked toward getting it varsity status.

"Coaching can be like that charge you get as an entrepreneur," he said. "You have an idea and something you want to build, and you go out and do it. Here, we are trying to build a championship soccer program, and every year we have faced a different challenge. That's one of the exciting things about coaching, though."

Freshman's big moment

Louisville forward Aaron Horton grew up near Columbus, Ohio, so he's played plenty of cold-weather soccer.

As the temperature dropped Saturday and frosty flakes fell in Louisville, site of the Cardinals' NCAA quarterfinal match with UCLA, Horton thought, "OK, this is good. I'm used to this. It's kind of fun to play in the snow."

Still … he was just as glad not to play in it any longer than regulation. The top-seeded Cardinals avoided overtime thanks to Horton's goal in the final minute.

He weaved his way past multiple defenders, and like a running back who refuses to be stopped short of the end zone, finished the game and sent Louisville to a 5-4 victory and its first College Cup.

"The whole second half, I liked the way I was playing and kinda thought I was going to get a chance," Horton said. "As I cut through the middle, I saw a gap in the defense and just got through it as fast as possible. Then I was in front of the goalie, and I was able to flip it past him."

He acknowledged with at chuckle, "I've watched the replay a couple of times."

As well he should. It was his second goal of the season for the undefeated Cardinals, who will meet No. 4 seed North Carolina in the national semifinals on Friday.

"Coming in as a freshman, this season has gone smoothly because I knew my role," Horton said. "We have found ways to win games; we just know somebody will do something when we need it."

Which is exactly what he did against UCLA.

College Cup schedule

The semifinals at Meredith Field at Harder Stadium in Santa Barbara begin at 8:30 p.m. ET on Friday with the Louisville-UNC match, followed by Akron-Michigan at approximately 11 p.m. ESPNU will televise both games, and the latter will also be on ESPN2 and ESPN3.

Sunday's final is at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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