Gophers soccer looks to crumble mighty Tarheels

Aaron Kirscht

You have to wonder if North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance has a little Genghis Khan in him, the way his team has dominated the college ranks over the last decade.
Genghis, who oversaw an empire in the early 13th century that stretched from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean in Asia, was known for his military genius. His armies conquered the continent with merciless violence.
Dorrance, whose teams have won 13 national championships — including an unprecedented streak of nine that ended last year — is known for his innovation. He consistently recruits the nation’s top talent, reloading his cannon of a program for another shot at a title.
So it should go without saying that the No. 14 Gophers women’s soccer team will face its biggest challenge in its four-year history this weekend, when it tries to dethrone the No. 2 Tarheels on Friday at the Wisconsin Soccer Invitational in Madison.
It won’t be easy by any means.
“They’re a very fast, athletic team,” Gophers coach Sue Montagne said. “They have a blue chip player at every position. They’re a solid team all around; you’re not going to find any weaknesses.”
No kidding. UNC is 13-1 this season, having beaten their opponents by a combined score of 56-5. By comparison, the Gophers stand at 13-3, with a more mortal 39-15 scoring advantage.
And the Tarheels’ wizardry doesn’t stop there. Heading into the weekend, Carolina has posted a record of 378-16-10 over 17 seasons, including 257-5-8 in the last 11.
But even in the face of those daunting numbers, Montagne seems confident.
“I think the players are excited to play a team of that caliber,” Montagne said. “They’re ready for the challenge.”
The Gophers will also play Northern Illinois on Sunday. The pair of late-season match-ups outside of the Big Ten conference, Montagne said, provide a nice break before the conference tournament next month.
“I like it this way,” Montagne said. “It’s better than turning around and playing the same teams on back-to-back weekends.”
Against North Carolina, Montagne said, “We have nothing to lose. If we come out with a win, that’s great. But if we come out having played very hard with different results, that’s fine too.”
As usual, Montagne said the Gophers will have to play their own possession style of soccer — only quicker — to have a chance against the Tarheels.
“We probably won’t have the time to dribble, so we’ll have to play a two-touch (receive the pass and pass it upfield) game.”
That served the Gophers well last weekend against Ohio State. Coaches and players alike said Minnesota played perhaps its finest passing game of the season, although the 1-0 score didn’t show as much. Still, the confidence that they can put the ball where they need to could help the Gophers against North Carolina.
The timing couldn’t be better for the Gophers, who Montagne says should match up well with Carolina.
“Our starting-11 is really starting to jell,” Montagne said. “Instead of having a few standout players [like North Carolina], we have a lot of good, strong players that are working really well together right now.”
The coach has been particularly impressed with the play of freshman midfielder Megan Johnson, who leads the team with nine assists, sophomore midfielder Kelly Shea and senior defender Allison Johnson.
And now that the team has come together, Montagne says this may be her best team ever at Minnesota.
“In the past, we’ve had teams that had more chemistry and less skill,” she said. “Now we’re really starting to play up to our potential.”
A Gophers loss against North Carolina this weekend would likely end up as just another notch in the Tarheels’ well-worn goalposts. A Minnesota win, however, could make a little history, as well as pave the way for a potential post-season match-up.
“It will be a great test for us,” Montagne said, “to see where we’re at, and how we match up with a great team.”