After scoring 49 goals in maize and blue, Michigan forward Nkem Ezurike graduated on the cusp of an historic collegiate career. Scouts called her the best Michigan soccer player of all time, critics found few faults, and one GM from Boston, Massachusetts fell in love with her game.
In January, following a 14-goal, 10-assist senior campaign, Ezurike watched as the Breakers made her the eighth overall pick in the 2014 NWSL Draft. Right away, the Michigan alum knew the league would present significant challenges.
"The NWSL is a big step up from the college level," she said, shortly after joining the club. "But I'm excited to see how it is."
In the beginning of April, after completing her courses in Ann Arbor, Ezurike suited up for the Breakers for the first time, joining her new squad during the final stages of pre-season training. The Nova Scotia native hit the ground running.
"It was definitely challenging," she began, "because the majority of the team was already together. But I learned quickly, and I just threw myself in there."
Ezurike, along with fellow rookies Mollie Pathman, Jazmine Reeves and Jami Kranich, immediately stepped onto the field alongside headliners Heather O'Reilly, Alyssa Naeher and Lianne Sanderson. Though the transition from NCAA to NWSL required patience, they fought to fit in--and earn valuable minutes on the field.
"It took some time to get used to the style of play," Ezurike continued. "It's a much quicker game, and a much greater talent level...but I felt like I was in the same boat as the other rookies, going from college to the draft to the pros."
On May 28, with her Breakers struggling to find their footing, Ezurike started alongside Reeves against the defending champion Portland Thorns. Before the game, Head Coach Tom Durkin benched his crew of veterans and International stars, sending a statement to the team's elite players. Ezurike saw her chance.
In the 2nd minute, Reeves tore down the right side and slotted a daunting cross onto the far post, where Ezurike calmly redirected the pass into the back of the net. The Michigan product officially joined the scoring sheet, showing glimpses of her goal-scoring prowess.
Less than a month later, Ezurike recorded her second tally of the season, scoring a late equalizer against Western New York. After receiving a well-paced through ball from midfielder Maddy Evans, Ezurike took care of business, dipping a gorgeous shot past Flash goalkeeper Lydia Williams.
For Ezurike and the Breakers, however, the late-June match served as a sour reminder of a season-long struggle: battling for points when they matter most. On this day, a late game-winner doomed the Breakers on the road, all but stifling their playoff hopes.
In spite of her team's struggles, Ezurike stood beside her teammates.
"Throughout the season, we stuck together and grew together," she continued. "Hopefully we'll improve next season."
The task seems easier said than done: before the opening kick of 2015, Durkin will need to address the back line, field a steady Starting XI, and find a way to hold onto late leads--all while developing a blossoming Reserve and Academy program.
Though Ezurike failed to highlight any of these factors, she recognizes the team's need for consistency.
"I can't pinpoint one thing," she began. "But we definitely need more consistency as a team; we need to minimize major slip-ups. We lost so many matches narrowly, so we just need to come out and play our game."
With a fresh start, and a revamped roster, Ezurike will go back to work as a celebrated second-year forward. She hopes to make the most of her opportunity.
"I'm more of a target striker, so I love to get other people involved," she added. "But I'm still improving. I hope to play more, and make an even greater impact, next season."
In 2015, Ezurike will work to involve a talented crew of players, from Kristie Mewis and Heather O'Reilly to Mollie Pathman and Lianne Sanderson. The prolific goal scorer will also find more opportunities to involve herself in the attack, using her sophomore season to fully emerge as a scoring threat.
With one legacy made and another waiting in the wings, the talented forward will likely flourish in front of a fully-loaded midfield. For now, Breakers fans must wait until the goal-scoring phenom breaks into Tom Durkin's everyday 11, looking to turn maize-and-blue legendry into royal-and-white celebrity.