Illini unlikely to overlook Gophers

Emily Wickstrom

For the first time all season, an opponent of Minnesota’s soccer team will step onto the field knowing what to expect.

Throughout the year, the Gophers (9-7-2, 6-4-0 Big Ten) have been able to surprise opponents, winning games they “weren’t supposed to” through tough defense, timely goals and an outstanding freshman class.

But when No. 5 seed Minnesota plays No. 4 seed Illinois at 3:30 p.m. today at the Big Ten Tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., there will be no surprises for either team.

“This time, it’s the known,” Gophers soccer coach Mikki Denney Wright said of facing the Illini. “We both know each other very well. We know what they’re going to do.”

When Illinois (10-5-3, 6-3-1 Big Ten) came to Minnesota on Oct. 9, the Gophers won 2-1 after trailing 1-0 in the first half.

Today’s game will likely be just as close.

Minnesota has played 12 straight one-goal games and boasts a similar game strategy to that of the Illini.

“The coaches said that we probably match up better with Illinois than any other team in the Big Ten,” senior forward Kaitlin Neary said.

Both teams thrive on defense. The Gophers were second in the conference in goals allowed per game (0.88), and the Illini were not far behind (1.12).

To back up the strong defenses are two of the conference’s best goalkeepers. Minnesota’s Molly Schneider and Illinois’s Lindsey Cartens have seven shutouts each.

As to who will do the scoring, neither team has just one featured forward.

Illinois has three players with at least 10 scoring points, led by Jessica Bayne’s 18.

Lindsey Schwartz and Becky Dellaria lead Minnesota with 17 and 10 points, respectively.

But even though the two teams seem very even, the Gophers have one significant disadvantage: the number of players prepared to face Big Ten competition.

“Our biggest thing for this weekend is our depth,” Denney Wright said. “Our kids are going to have to be ready.”

Illinois has one of the deepest teams in the conference, consistently using as many as 18 players.

Conversely, the Gophers have a short bench, which could make it tough to keep up with the Illini’s constant substitutions. And now, Minnesota’s primary substitute – freshman forward Nikki Jensen – is out with an anterior cruciate ligament injury, suffered Friday against Penn State.

“It kind of hurts us a little bit,” freshman midfielder Kelsey Hood said. “But we’re tough, and I think a lot of us are used to playing a lot of minutes. We haven’t been subbing a lot.”

For Minnesota to win, Denney Wright said, her players will need to do exactly what they’ve done all season – play physically, capitalize on any scoring chances and defend well.

“For us seniors, this is our last chance to play,” Neary said. “We’ve never gotten to experience (the Big Ten Tournament), and it’s something that we’ve worked for. We’re excited.”