Welcome back, soccer: Minnesota returns home after nearly a month on the road

Tonight’s game against No. 16 Michigan is the 100th in program history.

by Bob Wothe

Minnesota’s soccer team returns home this weekend after a six-game road trip that spanned nearly a month to play its Big Ten home opener.

Tonight’s game is the 100th in the history of the program.

The Gophers welcome-back present? A 7 p.m., date tonight at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium with No. 16 Michigan, and a Sunday matinee against the sixth-ranked team in the Great Lakes, Michigan State.

“From what the MSU coach is saying, they have their best team in the history of the program,” Gophers head coach Mikki Denney Wright said. “And Michigan is coming off a huge win last weekend.”

That win was a 1-0 upset over No. 11 Illinois. The Wolverines (5-2-1, 2-0-0 Big Ten) return nine starters and 17 letter-winners from a team that reached the NCAA quarterfinals a year ago, and they have two of the most prolific scorers in the Big Ten.

Therese Heaton has scored a point each in seven straight games, totaling 16 for the year, and freshman Melissa Bobbyn has tallied 14 points by scoring in six of Michigan’s last eight games.

The Wolverines’ only two losses have come at the hands of two other nationally-ranked teams, No. 14 Texas A&M and No. 22 Texas.

The Gophers (3-4-0, 0-2-0) certainly will be the underdogs, but history might be on their side.

Although the Gophers are 8-30-1 against ranked opponents, and despite the fact that the Wolverines have won four of the last five meetings, the Gophers are 3-2 facing a ranked Michigan team and 3-1 against Michigan on their home pitch. The Gophers are also 6-3-1 in Big Ten home openers.

At 1 p.m. Sunday, the Gophers take on the Spartans (7-2-0, 1-1-0) – a team Denney Wright said is quite possibly one of the top 20 teams in the nation.

Michigan State is coming off a 1-0 loss to Illinois last weekend but has won its last four meetings with the Gophers.

The Spartans are third in the Big Ten in goals per game with 2.44, so the Gophers’ defense will have to step it up against Spartans leading scorer Emma Harris, who has four goals and 10 points in the young season.

Hurting their cause will be the absence of junior defender Tierney Palmer-Klein, who underwent surgery yesterday to treat a high-ankle sprain and is out for the year. She’ll be replaced in the lineup by freshman Allison Kempainen.

“We know that we’ll have to be physical, defensively, in both games,” junior defender Laura Hoppe said. “All Big Ten opponents are that way, so we’ll have to be working hard.”

Defense alone won’t carry the day for the Gophers, however. Their own offensive attack will have to be better, as they have scored one or fewer goals in six of the seven matches this season.

In wins, the Gophers have averaged 17.7 shot attempts with 8.7 on goal. In four losses, the team has mustered just 7.3 shot attempts and 3.3 shots on goal.

Despite the undoubted underdog status the Gophers will have this weekend, Denney Wright is still her upbeat self.

“We know we’re going to be underdogs all year with the Big Ten as strong as it is,” she said. “We just need to embrace that role and win some games.”