Last Wednesday, Christina Murillo competed in a Michigan uniform for the first time in almost two years.
Last year, the senior midfielder trained full-time in Mexico City with the Mexican National Team in preparation for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Just over a month after the event’s conclusion in July, Murillo was head-to-head with rival Ohio State during an exhibition at U-M Soccer Stadium.
The excitement surrounding Murillo’s return speaks to how important of a player she is for the Wolverines, having started 57 of 59 games in her collegiate career. With just two goals and eight assists to her name, her stats aren’t loaded, but her leadership and talent are always assets.
But this past year, with of an intense training camp schedule along with World Cup qualifiers, was nowhere near easy for Michigan’s star player.
“Every single day at practice I was afraid that I wasn’t gonna make the team,” Murillo said. “Which is a good thing, because that means that the team is very competitive and we had a pool of players that were able to easily have been in those starting positions.
First came a decision that weighed heavily upon Murillo and her Michigan squad, which was to take off a full year as opposed to one semester. In discussion with Michigan coach Greg Ryan, the two had thought of redshirting first semester and returning the next in time for spring season. But that jeopardized her chances of making the final 23-woman World-Cup roster for a highly competitive national team.
Michigan lost the core of its midfield.
When Murillo traveled to Mexico City in August 2014, she was already at a disadvantage. She needed to adapt to a vastly different culture, and she didn’t know how to speak Spanish, making team communication problematic initially.
She had also spent the summer interning for the FC Dallas soccer club, where she didn’t get much time to train in addition to already missing Mexico’s first few training camps.
“My first day, my trainer immediately told me, ‘You need to train hard, we need to get you into shape,’ ” Murillo said. “(Coach Leonardo Cuéllar) told me, ‘Until you get into shape, you’re not gonna play.’ ”
With World Cup qualifiers approaching fast, Murillo had to find a training regimen that would get her into shape as quickly as possible. With the help of one of the team’s athletic trainers, she went through a tough aerobic training regime to work on her strength and also began dieting.
The team practiced in three-week intervals, with a 10-day break in between. But Murillo used that time to train more, because she couldn’t afford to take a day off.
“Some people were able to just take those breaks and relax because they were already in shape,” Murillo said. “But I was just making sure I was training every single day so I could get into shape pretty fast.
“You can get invited back to the next camp or not, which is why I would get so nervous, because I had taken off a year specifically for that … If you didn’t do well at one camp, they could decide not to call you up and see how you would respond.”
Though Murillo was struggling to keep up, she responded well enough to make it to the qualifying games in October. Murillo was thrown into the highly competitive environment and put her months of intense training to work.
After his team lost the first qualifying game against Costa Rica, Cuéllar switched Mexico’s entire lineup to one that included Murillo against Jamaica. It was her first 90-minute game in six months, and Murillo’s performance helped the team earn a win and impressed Cuéllar enough to earn her significant minutes in each qualifier thereafter.
In June, Murillo, the only Michigan player to play in the Women’s World Cup, started the team’s first game of the World Cup against Colombia and played all 90 minutes.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” Murillo said. “I felt all different emotions at once, (such as) relief that I had finally completed a dream that I’ve had since I was four years old. I was very, very nervous on my first touch on the ball, because there are so many people watching that game and people that are close to you are watching that game. You’re very more conscious of the movements that you’re doing, but it was an amazing experience.”
Mexico didn’t pull off a win during its three-game stint at the World Cup, but Murillo still earned 97 minutes of valuable playing time. A few weeks later, she returned to Canada and helped Mexico earn a bronze medal at the Pan-Am Games.
But in the bronze medal match, Mexico’s 3-1 win over Canada was bittersweet for Murillo, who defeated two teammates from her past: former Michigan forward Nkem Ezurike and former defender Shelina Zadorsky.
“I definitely didn’t like it because they had been my teammates for three years,” Murillo said. “But it was very cool to see that some of the players had made it to that next level. … It’s nice to see them continuing with their professional careers.”
If given the opportunity, Murillo would consider a professional career of her own, but for now, she’s concerned with getting Michigan back on track toward making a big showing this season.
Though she didn’t expect it, Murillo was selected as the fourth team captain in late July. Ryan credited her international experience as well as her leadership for the decision.
“I’m surprised by how much this team has grown since I’ve last been here,” Murillo said. “There are some things from this team that I wish we would’ve had in Mexico. The focus is super high, which is awesome, and I’m just glad that every single practice, everybody wants to get better.”
For Murillo, she still feels pressure, but it’s much different. Now, she’s a role model for those who want playing time, just as she had wanted while in Mexico. Murillo may start every game this season, but that starting position is still earned, even if she boasts an impressive resume.
With the tough competition ahead this season, the road won’t be an easy one. Murillo is used to that, though. As part of Mexico’s national team last year, she conquered every obstacle, even if the odds were stacked against her.
So if Michigan finds itself facing long odds itself, the Wolverines will just need to follow their leader.