In every sport, every team in the Big Ten has a strong conference rival no one expects them to beat, even at their strongest.
For football it’s Wisconsin, for hockey it’s North Dakota, for basketball, Indiana.
And for Minnesota soccer it’s defending Big Ten champion Penn State.
Only, the Gophers haven’t been at their best for a long time.
The Gophers, who are 1-2 in the Big Ten, entered a losing skid two weeks ago after being shutout by Illinois 2-0.
Last Sunday things got even worse as Michigan trounced the Gophers 4-0, with Minnesota again failing to find the net.
Offense remains a long-standing problem for the team this season — they’ve been outshot 52-34 over the past two games — but coach Barbara Wickstrand said strong practices this week should turn Minnesota’s fortunes around.
“We’ve hashed everything out and talked about why we were so inconsistent and figured out what we could and couldn’t control on the field,” Wickstrand said.
“We will always have opportunities when we beat the other team to the ball so that’s what we need to do against Penn State.”
But Wickstrand also realizes it will take more than a renewed offense to top the Lions, who are undefeated in the Big Ten after losing just two starters since last season.
Returning just in time is sophomore midfielder Kyndra Hesse, who sat out four games due to a head laceration she received during the match against Montana.
Sitting on the sidelines during Minnesota’s slump has been hard for Hesse; and after a tough loss like Michigan, Hesse said a challenger like Penn State is just what the team needs.
“When we lose like we did last weekend everyone is just excited to get back into a new game,” Hesse said. “It’s even better when it’s a big game like Penn State because we’ll be even better and more excited to win.”
Preparing for Friday’s match, Minnesota added some new elements in practice this week as the Gophers alter their defensive shape to battle the Lions’ strategy of overloading one side of the field.
Wickstrand has also highlighted the need for constant communication on the field, something the Gophers have noticeably lacked as games slipped out of their reach.
Senior midfielder Erin Holland said upping the communication between players is essential.
“In the past few games as things started going wrong for us we would get quiet and not communicate,” Holland said. “We need to stay focused for the entire game so that we can get the job done and win the ball.”
Though all odds are against Minnesota, Wickstrand still has little doubt her team has the talent to win.
And with a game against Ohio State on Sunday, the Gophers won’t have time to dwell on another loss or relish the victory they need.
“I have faith in our team and I know we are better than we were last year and we have a great work ethic, we just need to bring that to every game consistently,” Wickstrand said.
Monica Wright covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]