Oct. 26, 2012
By Brad Rudner
When it comes to soccer, U-M head coach Greg Ryan knows a complete player when he sees one.
During his three-year tenure as head coach of the U.S. Women's National Team (2004-07), Ryan worked with arguably the most complete women's soccer player in Abby Wambach. She's also the most recognizable and for good reason. It's difficult to find an area of her game that is lacking.
When Ryan was hired to rebuild the University of Michigan women's soccer program in 2008, he knew he needed a player of Wambach's caliber to headline the effort. He needed someone who could do the things she did -- score goals chief among them -- while also providing a physical presence and leadership.
He spent two years searching for that player, but everything changed in year three when he found Canadian striker Nkem Ezurike.
Standing a shade under 6-feet tall, Ezurike (pronounced "ez-ur-ee-kay") has a skill set that makes most soccer coaches salivate. Physically, she is unmatched, possessing that rare combination of strength and speed. When it comes to the tactical side, Ezurike is a step above the rest, studying opposing team's defensive formations that lead directly to her best trait -- finishing scoring chances. Put it all together and you have one of the most lethal players in all of collegiate soccer. Just ask her coach.
"In terms of strikers, even at the national team level, Nkem is one of the very top players I've ever coached," Ryan said. "She's way beyond the best collegiate striker I've had the opportunity to work with."
That's high praise coming from a man who's spent more than 35 years studying the game of soccer, but it's warranted. Out of all the players on Michigan's roster, Ezurike garners the most attention due to her position in the attacking third of the field. Her name is Nigerian, meaning, "What I have is greater than anything else," and considering how dominant she's been since her arrival in Ann Arbor two years ago, it's pretty fitting.
In 50 career matches, 49 of them starts, Ezurike has scored 30 goals; already sixth best in program history (her next goal ties her for fourth). Since Ezurike's arrival in 2010, Michigan is 32-16-8. The two years prior, the program was 10-19-10.
Could Ezurike's presence on the field be the key to Michigan's turnaround? Ryan didn't waste a second thinking about it.
"If you look at the top teams around the country, they all have at least one go-to scorer. Nkem is that for us," Ryan said. "That whole (2010) class helped turn around our program, but in terms of attacking and goal scoring, she's played a huge part."
It's no secret that U-M's offensive attack flows through Ezurike. The only difference between her first two years and this year is the talent surrounding her. No longer does the burden to score goals fall solely on her shoulders, not when you have a supporting cast like this. Though Ezurike leads the team in goals (10), an additional 12 players have put at least one in the back of the net this year.
"It's a good feeling," Ezurike said. "We've got a lot of players who are capable of scoring goals. That's something that opposing defenses sometimes don't expect. Who do they mark? They can't control one person anymore."
"Their game plan is to try and shut her down, which typically doesn't work anyway," junior Meghan Toohey added. "Having other teams focus so much on her allows other players to go unnoticed. She can make an impact with or without the ball."
If you're a frequent visitor to the U-M Soccer Stadium, you know it's impossible to ignore Ezurike on the field. Being the biggest and strongest player on the field sometimes gets her into trouble, however. She was forced to sit out one match each of the last two years due to an accumulation of yellow cards. Ezurike doesn't argue that she gets more fouls called on her than against, but just because she sees the color yellow doesn't mean she's slowing down any.
"Nkem is a victim of being a strong individual who gets a lot of fouls called on her and not for her," Ryan said. "She isn't a dirty player. She doesn't kick people. She's just so strong and most defenders can't handle her."
If you aren't a frequent visitor, chances are you have no idea how to pronounce her name accurately. Don't worry if that's the case. You're not alone.
"There have been so many," said Ezurike, laughing. "I've heard 'Nakeem'. Someone called me 'Enrique' once. That was the worst. If they get my first name wrong, they probably get the last name wrong, too."
Ezurike's parents, Levi and Christie, were both born in Nigeria and immigrated to Canada. Levi actually planned on coming to the U.S. but was convinced to go to Canada while on a business trip in Amsterdam. He ended up settling in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia, a suburb of Halifax.
Sports were something that each member of the family had in common. Levi played soccer, as did Nkem's older brother, Abuchi, while her two older sisters both played basketball. Despite being the youngest, Nkem was the tallest and most athletic of the bunch, or so she says.
She began playing soccer when she was five years old on the insistence of her parents. She tried her hand at other sports, but none provided the spark that soccer did, so she kept playing. She never expected soccer to become such a big part of her life.
"I didn't think that much of it, actually," Ezurike said. "I was doing it just to do it. But then opportunities started coming. Once I got to that point, I had to keep going, just to see how far I could get."
Ezurike's ascension to becoming one of Canada's best and brightest only grew with each level of soccer. She played high school soccer at Sackville High School for only one year before moving on to the Canadian National Training Center, a program akin to the Olympic Development Program in the U.S. From there, she made the Nova Scotian Provincial Team before making the Canadian U-17 Women's National Team in 2008.
When it came time to pick a college, Ezurike always planned on staying closer to home. Michigan associate head coach Dean Duerst was the first to notice Ezurike at the Umbro Showcase in Toronto and was wowed by what he saw. Ryan followed, traveling to New Zealand for the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup just to see Canada play.
As more collegiate coaches began giving Ezurike attention, her stance towards where she would play collegiately changed. Ryan knew the competition he had for Ezurike's services -- archrival Ohio State and West Virginia among the many -- but he had more than a few things to sell, despite not having a stadium to call home. He pointed to Michigan's academic excellence and the allure of playing time in the new system but also played the familiarity card, as two of Ezurike's fellow Canadians, Shelina Zadorsky and Eunnie Kim, had already pledged to Michigan.
"I told her she was going to be our go-to player and have the opportunity to be the goal scorer for this team," Ryan said. "She really wanted a good environment and team chemistry. We were very fortunate to get her."
"Greg saw me playing forward and starting, but I knew that might not be the case. He could have just said that," Ezurike said. "I wanted to do so well to make sure that became true."
It did. Ezurike started from the day she stepped foot on campus, but the transition to college soccer was one that opened her eyes. She remembers her first Big Ten match, Sept. 26, 2010, vs. Ohio State, calling that experience "a shock" because of how physical it was. Her real "welcome to college" moment came less than one month later at then-No. 23 Minnesota, when she scored the golden goal with 27 seconds left in double overtime.
From that point on, she became priority No. 1 on opposing team's scouting reports. She scored nine goals that season, helping lead Michigan to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. She also landed on the All-Big Ten and All-Big Ten Freshman teams.
The team didn't fare as well during her sophomore season, but she did manage to improve her scoring output, tallying 11 goals, including the ninth hat trick in program history at Purdue last October. She missed the first four matches of this season (her junior season) to compete at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup in Japan alongside Zadorsky (both played for Canada) and U-M teammate Christina Murillo, who was playing for Mexico. Filling the void left behind by three starters was considered to be a challenge for Ryan and the Wolverines as they entered the 2012 season, but it instead provided opportunity, as they went 4-0 to start the year.
Tired and jetlagged, Ezurike didn't score in the first four matches upon her return to Michigan. Frustrated, she met with Ryan one afternoon prior to the start of the Big Ten slate. She felt she was letting the team down by missing on some scoring chances. Knowing how much pressure Ezurike put on her own shoulders as the team's primary scoring option, he told her to not think about the misses and rather focus on getting the next opportunity.
The talk seemed to work. On Sept. 15 against Indiana, Ezurike scored twice and suddenly she was back. All 10 of her goals this season have come in Big Ten play, which include five game-winners and three multi-goal performances.
"She never stops working and she wants to score. That's what makes a good forward," Toohey said. "She is someone who will do whatever it takes to win. If she misses a goal but scores two, she'll care about the miss because she doesn't want to let the team down."
Nobody on the team knows Ezurike better than Zadorsky. The two first became friends at age 15 and played on a lot of the same teams coming up through the Canadian circuit. As a defender, Zadorsky goes up against Ezurike every day in training and sees first-hand how dangerous she can be.
"She's always had a physical presence on the field, even when we were younger," Zadorsky said. "The one thing that stands out to me is her maturity with regards to the tactical side of soccer. Every team knows about her. She's dealt with the pressure and still finds a way to score goals."
In a perfect world, the logical next step for both Ezurike and Zadorsky is the Canadian Women's National Team, a team they both strive to be on by the time the next FIFA Women's World Cup rolls around, slated for 2015 in their native Canada. Ryan thinks they both have a good shot.
Maybe his Ezurike-Wambach comparisons aren't so crazy to think about after all.
"When it comes to skill, speed, strength, striking the ball, beating players one-on-one, Nkem is better," Ryan said. "The scary thing is that she's a long way from reaching her potential. There just aren't that many players in the world with her athletic ability that can finish chances."
Now all we need is a one-on-one game.