Soccer kicks off Big Ten with set of road games

Mark Heller

Gophers soccer coach Sue Montagne was walking along a practice field on Tuesday, chatting with a visitor.
“Tough weekend,” the visitor said.
“Yeah, no kidding,” quipped Montagne. “And we had better not play like that again.”
Iowa State and Southern Methodist weren’t supposed to sweep then-22nd-ranked Minnesota. They weren’t supposed to win a game in what could have been a perfect kick-start to the Gophers’ Big Ten season.
But two losses later, Montagne’s team is running on ice. The Gophers have yet to score in the second half of any game and have scored only five goals in four games. Montagne chalks the scoring drought up to several factors.
“Right now we’re playing very individual,” Montagne said. “We need to start thinking and exploiting teams’ weaknesses on the field. We’re constantly reacting to what teams are doing to us, instead of spreading it out, playing quickly, playing as a team and freeing up our forwards.”
With last weekend’s momentum-killing losses behind them, the Gophers will be at No. 21 Illinois and unranked Iowa this weekend to open the conference season.
The way the Big Ten looks, this will probably be the first of many weekends with must-win games for the Gophers.
“Right now, Penn State obviously is really tough after beating (No. 1) North Carolina, and (No. 12) Wisconsin is also undefeated,” Montagne said. “Iowa is going to be a tough opponent. All the rest of us are in the same boat besides Penn State and Wisconsin.”
Last season, two games separated the top four teams (Penn State, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Indiana). Michigan and Minnesota came in next with a combined 10-7 record. Then the bottom dropped out of the conference as Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State finished 7-26 combined.
Despite going 3-6 last season, the Illini took the eighth and final spot for the conference tournament. This year, Illinois is already 5-1 and its only loss was last weekend against No. 19 Missouri, 3-2 in overtime.
Montagne was hoping to rely on a potent offense this weekend, and throughout the season, but so far she’s had to rely on a young defense.
So far so good, according to Minnesota.
“I’m comfortable with our defense,” senior goalie Dana Larson said. “Besides a lack of experience which they can’t do anything about, we communicate better. There are little things here and there, but I trust them to win the ball and find a way to get it out.”
The defense has held their own so far, but the Gophers led the conference in goals and points as a team last season. Giving up four goals in two losses isn’t bad, but the way the Big Ten looks, scoring one goal in two games could make for many more tough weekends.
“This is a pretty strong conference top to bottom,” Iowa coach Stephanie Gabbert said. “If any team plays well and another doesn’t, anyone can win. It’s similar to last year and things will depend on how the bottom teams progress.”
The offense is looking for a way to get the ball in the net, and Montagne is hoping that it happens today. The Big Ten is a deep conference this year, and one goal could be the difference between playing and watching in November.
“Teams that are organized defensively and shut down dangerous players tend to win,” Gabbert said. “The Big Ten isn’t a traditionally high-scoring conference. If you shut down teams, you’ll win.”
So far, Minnesota knows exactly what it’s like to have its big players shut down.

Mark Heller covers soccer and welcomes comments at [email protected]