Two wins lift soccer’s Big Ten prospects

Mark Heller

The recurring theme this season for the Gophers soccer team is that every Big Ten game is important.
Players and coaches alike were stressing that theme following sub-par performances against Iowa State and SMU while pointing to past seasons in the Big Ten as part of their works-cited speech.
So if the Gophers’ words are to be taken to heart, this weekend would be exhibit A. A pair of wins this weekend against Michigan State (3-4, 2-1-1) and Northwestern (2-7, 0-4) at the Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium gives Minnesota’s mouths some much-needed credibility as they enter the heart of Big Ten play.
“We had some of the best combinations out there,” Gophers coach Sue Montagne said. “We found each other well and we were composed under pressure.”
The Wildcats only put a moderate amount of pressure on Minnesota (5-3, 3-1) on Sunday, and none until the last 8 minutes of the game. The Wildcats went 75 minutes without a shot on goal. Gophers goalie Dana Larson made one save the entire game.
“We put in players today and said ‘play defense’ and that’s what they did,” Montagne said.
The Minnesota defense has held its own, but has not been helped much by a potentially potent offense. Minnesota’s three goals in two games is well below expectations so far, but the team is seeing things develop in stages.
As they did all weekend, the offense got chances but couldn’t convert in the first half Sunday.
But five minutes into the second half, Laurie Seidl centered a pass to Alison Rackley. Rackley’s shot was saved in front, but she got the ball back and left it for Nicole Lee who banged it home for a 1-0 lead.
“The ball came in on the right side and Rackley dropped it back perfectly,” Lee said. “It was an easy shot. She did most of the work.”
In the meantime, goalie Dana Larson could have been watching the Ryder Cup in net undisturbed. The constant play in the offensive zone and thorough cleaning job by the defense left Larson in her own world for most of the first 85 minutes.
But the Wildcats pressed in the last 10 minutes and forced some action. With six minutes left in regulation, a Minnesota foul gave the Wildcats a free kick just pastmidfield. A perfect free kick was followed with a direct shot on goal, but it clanged straight off the crossbar and the Gophers kicked it out.
After being outshot 9-2 in the first half, Northwestern outshot Minnesota 8-3 in the second half. The excitement of a near-goal from the Wildcats was not lost on Larson.
“It was exciting for me compared to Michigan State,” Larson said. “It’s always fun to get a shutout, but it was better today than Michigan State.”
Against the Spartans, Minnesota continued to steadily build on its weekly progression of offensive production. Last week against Iowa and Illinois the Gophers couldn’t give the forwards clean opportunities to create.
But in Friday’s game, the Gophers pounded the ball at the Michigan State defense enough to get a couple of goals. Rackley got her first goal of the season on a lobbed pass from Liz Wagner. Rackley and Spartans goalie Sara Kloosterman both sprinted for the ball, but Rackley won and lobbed it over Kloosterman for a 1-0 lead.
The insurance came with just under seven minutes left when Megan Johnson took a long pass from Seidl and lobbed it over a retreating Kloosterman.
After a rough early season, the Gophers are beginning to like how the team looks.
“We got two Big Ten wins,” Lee said. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

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