U soccer prepares for rugged

Jim Schortemeyer

The school year has just begun, but the Minnesota women’s soccer team is about to face one of its most difficult tests of the year when it opens the home portion of the Big Ten season this weekend.
The Gophers (5-1-0 overall, 1-0 in the Big Ten) will be facing Wisconsin and Northwestern, and each is coming off big weekends of their own — both beat Michigan, who at the time was ranked No. 10 in the nation.
Those wins vaulted Northwestern to a 6-0-1 record and up to No. 11 in the latest poll. Wisconsin improved its record to 3-3-0, but didn’t crack into the top 25.
“At the start of the season, people were saying Penn State, Michigan and Minnesota were contenders for the Big Ten championship,” Minnesota coach Sue Montagne said. “I think Northwestern and Wisconsin are struggling to prove they belong.”
The interstate rivalry with the Badgers is first on the schedule, Friday at 4 p.m. Wisconsin is hot after last weekend, with victories over Michigan and Michigan State.
The Badgers were tied 0-0 with the Wolverines at the end of regulation and required two overtimes to knock home a goal. Wisconsin’s battle-tested competitiveness has Montagne concerned.
“One thing they’re going to have going for them is a weekend of tough competition,” Montagne said. “I wish we had played some tougher opponents.”
Tough opponents is one thing Minnesota hasn’t had this season. The Gophers have outshot every opponent this season, and have won their games by two goals or more.
A big part of that margin of victory has been the play of Minnesota’s forwards. Sophomore Laurie Seidl and junior Nicole Lee — tied for the Big Ten lead in points with 18 — and freshman Alison Rackley (13) are leading a Gopher offense which has scored four goals or more four times this season.
Minnesota’s biggest challenge of the weekend should come Sunday from Northwestern, who wracked Michigan 4-2 last weekend. In their last meeting, the Wildcats knocked the Gophers out of the Big Ten tournament on penalty kicks.
The Gophers’ defense is going to be in for a test from the Wildcats, who have scored 12 goals in their last three games. The game figures to come down to defense, since neither team has allowed more than two goals in any game this season.
Montagne admitted that the loss to Northwestern last season has some players thinking revenge, but she said she hopes they’re not looking beyond the Wisconsin game.
“I’m looking at Madison right now,” Montagne said. “This is one of our biggest weekends of soccer.”
Players are, of course, echoing their coach’s party line of “taking it one game at a time.”
“Both games are equally important,” Lee said.
The focus for now is on Friday’s match with the Badgers, and Minnesota is prepared for a rough one. At Wednesday’s practice, players were doing a “push-pull drill”, in which players partner-up and then grab, tug and throw each other to the ground in an attempt to control the soccer ball.
“They’re definitely going to be real physical games, and with Wisconsin it’s that interstate rivalry,” Seidl said.