Title defense begins vs. Iowa, at Illinois

Iowa boasts potent attacking play; Minnesota hasn’t won at Illinois since 1997.

Brittany Storoz

The Minnesota soccer team will begin defense of its 2008 Big Ten title and try to quickly tarnish the clean slate of Iowa today before traveling to Illinois on Sunday. The Gophers (6-2-1 overall, 0-0-0 Big Ten) will play the Hawkeyes tonight (7-2-0, 0-0-0) at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium, where theyâÄôve gone undefeated for the past 17 games . Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m. Though Minnesota holds a sturdy 8-3-1 record against the Hawkeyes, no game since 2000 has been decided by more than one goal. With Iowa leading the conference in total goals this season , the Gophers will have to rely on a collaborative defensive effort to keep the margin close. âÄúRight now theyâÄôre the best attacking team in the Big Ten,âÄù head coach Mikki Denney Wright said. âÄúThey have 23 goals âĦso theyâÄôre going to be tough to break down.âÄù Junior forward Keli McLaughlin leads the Hawkeyes offense with seven goals, good for second in the Big Ten. If she gets past MinnesotaâÄôs back line, which has allowed 31 shots on net this season, redshirt freshman goalkeeper Cat Parkhill can anticipate a busy game. Parkhill has given up six goals this season, recording five shutouts and 24 saves . Her career-high 10 saves against UW-Milwaukee two weeks ago was the second-most in the Big Ten this year. IowaâÄôs sophomore goalkeeper Emily Moran has posted comparable statistics, also allowing six goals and recording five shutouts . She has eight more saves than Parkhill , but the Hawkeyes defense has also allowed nine more shots on net than the Gophers. Minnesota currently leads the conference in total shots with 160 , but the Gophers have had some trouble finishing. Minnesota lags behind the HawkeyesâÄô league-leading 23 goals with 17. MinnesotaâÄôs best chances to score have come from junior forward Katie Bethke , who has scored six of the teamâÄôs goals this season. Bethke is third in goals in the Big Ten, trailing McLaughlin by one. As a team that finishes most often on crosses, Minnesota will have to attack from the outside to force Moran into making last-second decisions. âÄúNow is the time we need to step up in consistency,âÄù Denney Wright said. âÄúItâÄôs about creating the kind of opportunities that our system creates, and making sure we execute and follow through.âÄù Tough travel to Illinois The Gophers will not be able to rely on the comfort of their home unbeaten streak on Sunday when they travel to Illinois (5-3-1, 0-0-0) , where they havenâÄôt won a game since 1997. The Illini have handed the Gophers five consecutive losses at Illinois Soccer Stadium, which senior forward Sara Clancy partially attributes to the rowdy Friday night fans that make it a difficult place to play. Clancy expects a Sunday game will bring a more playable atmosphere, but Illinois will be well-rested, going into the game having not played since last Sunday. Denney Wright said the Illini will be fierce in gaining possession during loose ball situations, so Minnesota will have to be as efficient as possible on its goal-scoring opportunities. âÄúWe need to pressure them all over the field so that we can keep the ball on our attacking half and not worry about their ball-winning,âÄù Clancy said. âÄúIf our midfielders can take some shots from the outside, and pull the Illinois defense out, I think thatâÄôll really help us in terms of getting other scoring opportunities.âÄù IllinoisâÄô defense has given up 45 shots on goal this season, 10 of which have beaten senior goalkeeper Alexandra Kapicka . Kapicka has three shutouts and 33 saves. Offensively, the Illini have strong forwards that will look to break down the Gophers defense. Junior forward Jordan Hilbrands matches BethkeâÄôs six goals, but has been remarkably efficient with her chances. HilbrandsâÄô accuracy at net means the Gophers will have to be quick to shut down her scoring opportunities. Denney Wright said she trusts the teamâÄôs defensive structure, which Clancy said includes forwards and midfielders that keep the back line from chasing too much. âÄúOur system is built on every person defending,âÄù Denney Wright said.