Gophers find balance on their back line

The team’s defense is allowing .61 goals per game, compared to 1.15 last season.

Senior Haley Helverson dribbles the ball down the field at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium on Friday, Sept. 11.

Melissa Scharf / Daily File Photo

Senior Haley Helverson dribbles the ball down the field at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium on Friday, Sept. 11.

Kaitlin Merkel

A more balanced defense on the back line has helped the Gophers soccer team to limit its opponents’ scoring this season.
 
Minnesota (11-4-3, 6-3-1 Big Ten) has outshot and outscored opponents by a combined 31-11 and 222-169 this season, respectively.
 
The team has succeeded this year in part by rearranging and starting younger players, after it was outshot 268-263 last season.
 
Minnesota has started sophomore defenders Maddie Gaffney and Tori Burnett in front of junior defender Rashida Beal and senior defender Haley Helverson in all 18 games this season.
 
Gophers head coach Stefanie Golan said moving Beal to a new position on the back line opposite Helverson this season has created balance on the pitch.
 
“Both Maddie Gaffney and Tori Burnett, they’re both pretty inexperienced. They didn’t play very much last year,” Golan said. “So we balanced our experience across the back
line to make sure that the information that’s being disseminated on the field is correct, and it also balances our athleticism across the field, too.”
 
Beal said the switch in sides and the contributions of underclassmen has allowed the Gophers to maintain speed on defense.
 
“I think it’s been a good fit. … Last year, [Helverson] and I were on the same side, and we bring similar strengths, speed and that aggression when we manage the ball,” Beal said. “We’ve been developing our relationship [with the sophomores] throughout the games, and I think we’ve just gotten better at it.”
 
The new defensive balance has relieved pressure on Gophers junior goalkeeper Tarah Hobbs, who has 61 saves with one regular season game left, compared to 87 total saves last year.
 
Golan said the Gophers are not only holding opponents to fewer shots, but they’re holding opponents to lower quality shots from a distance.
 
“There’s a lot of trust between the backs and [Hobbs]. A lot of the shots that the other team gets are from distance, which you’re not going to score on [Hobbs] from distance,” Golan said. “We’re turning teams over a lot further up the field [rather] than them getting those [closer] opportunities.”
 
Minnesota plays a high-pressure defense, which means its defenders try to take the ball back further up the field than most teams.
 
“It’s been this way since I’ve been here. … It’s always been that we’re high-press. Especially in the back, we hold a high line of confrontation,” Beal said.
 
Helverson said a key when playing on the Gophers defense is knowing when to play forward to help the offense and when to stay back on the pitch.
 
“As an outside back, I would say my role to get forward is definitely important, but also knowing when to [play defense], because if I’m out of my hole, then that space is exploited,” Helverson said.
 
Golan said she placed an emphasis on defending in the team’s training this week after a 3-1 loss to Rutgers on Friday in which the Gophers were outshot 19-5 and gave up
the most goals they have in a game this season. 
 
“[Monday] was spent all on defending … getting initial good pressure on the ball,” Golan said. “We’re patient in our defending. We defend with a sense of urgency, but we’re also patient, not trying to dive in and feel like we have to win everything.”