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Future Portland Thorns set to clash in Big 10 season opener

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Amirah Ali talked to Grant Little about facing future teammate Sam Coffey to start the spring season.

COLLEGE WOMENS SOCCER: OCT 25 Michigan at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Rutgers and Penn State last met in Piscataway, NJ in a hotly contested affair. Both teams had aspirations of securing the Big Ten title and knew that this was an important match against another contender.

The Nittany Lions took the lead in the 21st minute. Rutgers made it 1-1 in the 62nd minute through Brittany LaPlant. The Scarlet Knights quickly added another but their advantage was erased with a Penn State equalizer in the 86th minute.

The match entered extra time in search of the golden goal that would decide the match. In the 101st minute, Rutgers won a penalty and Amirah Ali stepped to the spot.

“When I went to that line, I knew that this could be it for us like I had to make this to win it for our team,” said Amirah Ali. “Since we were so close, this was the best opportunity to have that edge over Penn State in this game. So really [I] just tried to keep my mind focused on what I was trying to do, focused on the goal. Try not to let a lot of chatter really distract me because ... there was a lot of movement and the ref had to stop me and I was sitting there for a long time and it was a cold game too. So I tried to just focus on staying warm and focusing on just the goal and not really about everything else going on around me. In the end, I did really hone in on that and I got a good shot off.”

The finish was emphatic. Ali side-footed the ball into the top corner. This pressure was nothing new for Ali. The golden goal against Penn State was her fourth game-winner of the season.

“Those are the moments that I look forward to — being able to just finish that for my team,” said Ali. “I don’t mind being that person for my team and it doesn’t put any stress on me. I just love the game and I feel like that’s what helps me in those moments. I just like to take everything that I’ve learned and just apply it and not be stressed ... That’s the way that I’m able to finish goals or just accomplish anything that I’m trying to do during the game.”

Rutgers and Penn State meet in Piscataway, again, on Feb. 20 to open the Big Ten season. Once again both teams have title aspirations and know this match could set the tone for the season. Except for this time around, both teams will be led by future Portland Thorns.

Ali was drafted by the Portland Thorns with the 22nd overall pick and Penn State’s Sam Coffey was drafted by the Thorns with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft. The players will be rivals on the day, hoping to propel their respective schools to victory, but they have plenty of respect for one another.

“I do know Sam quite well. We’ve been to [youth national team] camps together,” said Ali. “She’s such a ... great player, and all-around just a great person. I’ll be very excited for the next step and being able to play alongside her for the first time in a couple of years. So that’s very exciting. But I am also ready for this game. I’m not going to forget that. This game is very important. It does kick off the season. So I have to put that friendship aside just for that evening.”

Ali and Coffey were both named to the MAC Hermann Trophy watch list. Ali was named as a semifinalist in 2019, but she is not focused on individual awards. She is focused on bringing a Big Ten Championship to Rutgers University. She and her teammates have come close multiple times and securing the Big Ten title is their number one priority.

“I’m definitely one of the people who don’t really try to get these awards in my head in any way,” said Ali. “Because I know that it is a team sport, and I have to rely on not just myself, but my teammates around me. So I really just like to focus on the team aspect of everything. And if awards come along with it then that’s a plus. But I really just like to focus on getting a National Championship [and a] Big Ten Championship with my team.”

Rutgers host Penn State at Yurcak Field on Saturday, Feb. 20 at 11 a.m. PT.