By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 16, 2012
A single sheet of paper rests on a chair in the home locker room at the U-M Soccer Complex.
“It’s not the end but rather the beginning,” it reads. “Finish strong.”
On Friday night in State College, the Michigan women’s soccer team didn’t just dominate the end of its match against No. 24 Portland. Rather, the Wolverines (8-3-2 Big Ten, 16-5-2 overall) took an early lead, scored right before halftime and added a third tally in the later stages of the match as they cruised by the fourth-seeded Pilots, 3-0.
Junior forward Nkem Ezurike terrorized Portland’s back line, recording two assists and adding a goal of her own in the contest. As one of the most potent strikers in the country, Ezurike often garners the attention of opposing defenses. But in the opening moments of the match, the Pilots’ focus on the striker created an opening for a teammate, senior midfielder Clare Stachel. In the third minute, Ezurike drew defenders towards her when she carried possession deep into Portland’s half. The striker then slotted a pass to an unmarked Stachel, who beat the goalkeeper with a low shot into the right corner of the net.
“I’m kinda hitting my stride,” Stachel said. “We just came out strong and hard.”
Stachel’s tally was her second in as many games. She scored her first goal of the season with less than a minute remaining in regulation to force overtime against Central Michigan last Saturday.
After Stachel’s surprising go-ahead tally, the Pilots (5-1-2 West Coast, 11-5-5) sustained pressure on Michigan’s defense for most of the opening stanza. But seconds away from heading into halftime ahead by only one, the Wolverines struck again. This time a Portland defender left senior midfielder Emily Jaffe and instead challenged Ezurike. Jaffe received a crisp pass from her teammate and chipped Portland goalkeeper Erin Dees with 39 seconds left before the half. The netminder managed to slow down the lob but couldn’t keep it from deflecting into the side netting of the goal.
Ezurike finally marked a tally of her own in the 62nd minute. Touching the ball around a defender at midfield, Ezurike outran Portland’s back line to create a one-on-one opportunity against Dees. The striker buried a shot to the goalkeeper's right for her 15th goal of the season.
“I just got in behind (the defense) and kept going towards goal,” Ezurike said.
Ezurike has scored in seven consecutive matches, setting a new program record.
Michigan coach Greg Ryan — who led the U.S. women’s national team during the 2007 World Cup — compared Ezurike to Abby Wambach, one of the best players to have ever donned the red, white and blue.
“Nkem reminds me of Abby,” Ryan said. “Such a dominant athlete who can also play soccer. Abby’s great in the air; Nkem’s great on the ground.”
The Wolverines’ defense limited the Pilots to just three total shots, but senior goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer was still a major factor in the result of the contest. Late in the first half, she made a spectacular diving save on a well-placed header to keep her team ahead. Minutes later, Michigan doubled its lead and went into the intermission riding a wave of momentum.
Up two goals at halftime, Ryan tweaked the lineup by dropping every player but Ezurike into a defensive position. And as the second half progressed, Portland sent more players into attack.
“They were throwing the kitchen sink at us. It was like (playing) Barcelona,” Ryan said.
But the conservative scheme worked, and Ezurike sealed the win on a counterattack with 28 minutes remaining.
The victory earned Michigan a berth in the Sweet 16. It will face either Boston College or first-seeded Penn State in State College on Sunday.