Soccer surging toward postseason

by Jim Schortemeyer

The Minnesota women’s soccer team swept Texas Christian and Southern Methodist this weekend, improving its win streak to four.
A party in the Gophers’ honor might be premature, however. They’ve done this before, winning five games straight earlier this season before slipping into an unprecedented slump by losing four of six games.
But there is some cause for optimism. Minnesota is gaining confidence with each win, and Gophers coach Sue Montagne said her team is playing with a purpose.
“We’re playing to get into the playoffs,” Montagne said.
That NCAA tournament goal drew closer Sunday when Minnesota (11-5 overall) beat Southern Methodist (9-8) 2-1. The Mustangs won the Mountain Division of the WAC, and will be the number one seed in the WAC Tournament.
The game was evenly played, with neither team holding a shot advantage. But in the end Minnesota happened upon something it hasn’t experienced for a while: a little good fortune.
A scoreless tie lasted until the 58th minute, when senior defender Vanessa Touset snuck a ball past the Mustang goalkeeper on a shot from 20 yards out. The Mustangs answered eight minutes later on a penalty kick from Jamie Campanaro, but junior Megan Johnson knocked in the game-winner in the 83rd minute.
Southern Methodist’s lone goal is reflective of a pattern in Minnesota’s games. Four of the last seven goals Minnesota has allowed have come off penalty kicks or free kicks.
The unsung hero over the last four games has been the Minnesota defense, which remained intact while Montagne tinkered with her offensive lineups.
The senior triumvirate of Touset, Jamie Wyffels and Noelle Papenhausen has allowed three goals in the last four games, and a paltry 18 shots in the past three games. Touset says the offense is finally catching up to the defense’s standards.
“We’re beginning to learn and improve (as a team), but our defense has been solid the whole year,” Touset said.
The trouble with the Mustangs was not present in Saturday’s game at Texas Christian. The Gophers and Nicole Lee needed just over one minute to dust the Horned Frogs 5-1.
Up 2-1 at the 65:51 mark, Lee knocked in her first goal of the day. At 66:18 she got her second, and she completed the hat trick at 66:54. The final carnage: three goals in a minute and three seconds.
“Nicole was just her usual self,” Montagne said.
Lee’s usual self of late has been destructive to other teams. Last weekend Lee was named Big Ten Player of the Week after scoring two goals and an assist against Illinois.
The scoring burst was unexpected, but Lee did say last week that she was just coming out of a mid-season funk.
“I’ve had some focusing problems, but I was able to focus a little more,” Lee said.
Minnesota will need that focus for the Big Ten Tournament, which begins in two weeks.
The Gophers’ fate was decided Friday, when Indiana beat Illinois. The Hoosiers’ victory gave Minnesota the sixth seed in the tournament and set up a date with Northwestern.
The Wildcats won 2-1 against the Gophers earlier this season in a game Minnesota thought it should have won, but lost on a penalty kick in the second half. The loss began a 2-4 stretch for the Gophers.
But coaches and players say the present version of the Minnesota team is in much better shape than that team. The Gophers are making a late run at an NCAA tournament bid — and trying to reestablish themselves as one of the Big Ten’s best teams.
“We’re an up-and-coming team right now,” Touset said.