Sitting in prime position to make a run for the conference championship, the No. 23 Michigan women’s soccer team has taken the Big Ten by surprise this season.
The Wolverines (4-0-1 Big Ten, 10-2-1 overall) have relied on stout defense and timely goals by junior forward Nkem Ezurike and the offense to mark their second 10-win season in three years. But overshadowed by Michigan’s remarkable back four and its opportune offense is a solid midfield that has been instrumental in the team’s success.
The Wolverines’ midfield has already accounted for eight goals and nine assists, but its confident style of play has provided the biggest boost to the team. Anchored by fifth-year senior Clare Stachel and junior Meghan Toohey, the middle four sets up offensive attacks, supports the defense and effectively controls the pace of the game.
Perhaps the most exciting member of Michigan’s midfield is sophomore Christina Murillo. Since her return from the under-20 women’s World Cup in Japan, Murillo has tallied only one goal and one assist, but contributes to the team in ways that aren’t reflected on a statsheet. The sophomore controls the ball like a professional, makes pinpoint passes from 30 yards away and has surprised many goalkeepers with long-range, powerful shots.
And she does it all with a soft-spoken humility.
“I don’t care how many goals I score, as long as the team is winning,” Murillo said.
Michigan coach Greg Ryan knows that having a player like Murillo is rare. After she scored the game-winning tally against Oakland on Sept. 9, Ryan said he felt like Murillo was playing at a level above everyone else: faster, stronger and smarter.
“I don’t see many college players playing the way she is right now,” Ryan said. “She’s not playing like a college student — she’s playing like a pro.”
The Wolverines face Northwestern on Saturday on the road knowing that if they don’t win, they risk dropping further behind conference-leading Penn State. The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions (5-0, 11-2) are perched atop the Big Ten with 15 points. Despite being undefeated in conference play, Michigan trails by two points because of a draw with Iowa.
The Wolverines have never finished first in the Big Ten, but Murillo hopes to change that this fall.
“We’re performing to the best of our abilities right now,” Murillo said. “Our biggest goal is to win the Big Ten championship.”
Halfway through the conference schedule, Michigan is poised to do just that. The midfield has controlled the tempo of every match, and its ball movement and precise passes have worn down opponents. It will look to assert its dominance in the remaining Big Ten games, but that won’t be easy. Standing in their way on Saturday are the Wildcats, who have not lost to the Wolverines since 2005.
This year, Northwestern is struggling to find the back of the net, but has improved since last year. The Wildcats (0-5, 4-7-2) have already doubled its 2011 win total.
Northwestern’s attack, led by junior forward Kate Allen, has only scored once in five conference matches, but the Wildcats’ solid defense has kept them in almost every game this season. Breaking them down will present a challenge for Michigan’s midfield, but Murillo knows how much a win would mean for the team.
“Beating (Northwestern) this weekend would prove how much the soccer program has improved,” Murillo said.
Facing a conference opponent on the road is never easy, especially in a must-win scenario. But the Wildcats are a college team. And, according to Ryan, Murillo just isn’t at that level.