Minnesota soccer defense excels with chemistry, closeness

The Gophers have three veteran defenders in their starting lineup.

Gophers defender Nikki Albrecht passes the ball upfield at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium against Penn State on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016.

Carter Jones, Daily File Photo

Gophers defender Nikki Albrecht passes the ball upfield at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium against Penn State on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016.

Dominic Davis

With just four games left in regular season, Minnesota’s defense is clicking at the right time.

The Gophers defensive unit is finding a lot of success, mostly due to a large core of veteran players who have held Minnesota’s opponents to only nine goals on the season.

“It is really important to have veteran backs,” said associate head coach Krystle Seidel. “The longer you’re doing it, the more you feel confident in a bunch of different scenarios.”

The backs Seidel refers to are the duo of senior Rashida Beal and junior Tori Burnett. Seidel said in her eight years of coaching, she’s never had both center backs from a previous season return for the next until this year.

The partnership between Beal and Burnett gives the No. 15 Gophers (11-3-1, 5-1-1 Big Ten) a tough defense to beat.

“Our strengths play off of one another,” Burnett said. “[Beal] is obviously the fastest defender in the Big Ten, so she can get all the through balls on the ground. I’m pretty decent in the air, so I get all the stuff up top.”

Beal helped Burnett grow into the starter role before her sophomore season. Constructive criticism from Beal was important to Burnett’s growth as a player.

“Rashida really took me under her wing and really tried to help me along,” Burnett said. “Rashida is a student of the game and is very knowledgeable. I tried to do my best to listen to her and implement what she has been telling me.”

Trying to incorporate too many new players in a system can be challenging, but Seidel said the addition of freshman defender Nikki Albrecht has come along well.

“Nikki brings a level of physicality,” Seidel said. “All around she just has so many qualities that help her be successful and help our line be successful.”

Albrecht is learning a lot playing with three upperclassmen on defense, including junior Maddie Gaffney, and is the only freshman to start consistently this season.

Opponents of Minnesota have taken 147 shots, only 34 percent of which were on goal. That is 98 shots less than the Gophers have taken.

“One thing we’ve been really focusing on is just having each other’s back,” Beal said. “We are always preparing for the worst case, so if something does happen the next person is right there ready to step in.”

Since Beal’s first season in Minnesota, the team has allowed fewer goals each year.

This year the Gophers have only allowed nine goals with only four games remaining in the regular season. Last season, their opponents scored 19 goals against them.

Senior goalkeeper Tarah Hobbs has also contributed solidly to Minnesota’s defense in her final season.

She recently claimed the club shutout record and added to it for a total of 29 in her career so far, nine of which have come in this season.

Hobbs has given a lot of credit for her achievement to her teammates, and the unit prides itself on being in sync with each other in every game.

“I was really proud that she broke that record,” Beal said. “I think it’s like a big team effort. A big part of it is how our defense has limited shots this year. It has been a great combination of us doing our job defensively and her coming up big in the moments we need her to.”