A season ago, the Minnesota women’s soccer team was left outside the NCAA tournament looking in, its resume not quite polished enough to earn a berth a year after it made a run to the Sweet Sixteen. Six games into this season, the Gophers are already talking about making their way back there.
It seems to be proper motivation.
Minnesota beat the University of California at Santa Barbara 2-0 Friday and No. 14 San Diego 2-1 on Sunday to win the Minnesota Gold Classic in its first weekend of the year at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium.
The Gophers have rattled off five straight wins after a season-opening loss to then 4th ranked Notre Dame, and have scored at least two goals in each, including a 7-0 drubbing of Belmont last Tuesday.
“This is the best I’ve seen us in attack in a long time,” seventh year head coach Mikki Denney Wright said Sunday after her team netted two impressive goals against the Toreros.
In the 53rd minute, senior midfielder Molly Rouse corraled a cross near the end line and found a waiting Shari Eckstrom at the top of the box. Eckstrom slid a one-touch shot under San Diego goalkeeper Courtney Parsons for her team-leading fourth goal of the season.
Less than 20 minutes later, Rouse received a free kick from fellow senior Katie Bethke at the far post and sent a cracking header into the back of the net. The cushion proved critical when the Toreros’ Brittany Held, already a hero thanks to an overtime winner against Marquette, glanced a shot off newly appointed center back Tamara Strahota . It looped over Minnesota keeper Cat Parkhill and into the net.
It was the defense’s only blemish in an otherwise stingy weekend, this despite UC-Santa Barbara’s attempt on Friday to isolate Strahota, who dropped back last week from forward to fill in for injured senior and three-year starter Jennie Clark . Strahota went through a one-day crash course to learn the Gophers’ unorthodox back line, a flat three-player formation that emphasizes one-on-one defending. As Denney Wright put it, “you make a mistake you’re done. You don’t have any cover.”
But Strahota was up to the task, and apart from one lapse kept the Gauchos’ speedy striker Alissa Sanchez away from the net. The lone time that Sanchez slipped behind the defense – in the middle of the first half with the score still knotted 0-0 – Parkhill made a sprawling save and allowed Minnesota to clear its lines. It was one of only two shots UC-Santa Barbara managed to put on target.
Meanwhile, the Gophers were creating chances but often missing the net altogether. It wasn’t until the opening minutes of the second half and a fortuitous bounce that sophomore forward Allie Phillips put home the game winner. An attempted clearance was headed onto her foot, and it lofted over Gauchos’ keeper Makenna Henry, who could do nothing but watch it dip under the crossbar.
Redshirt freshman Steph Brandt added insurance in the 87th minute with her first career goal, a shot that whistled into the top corner from 20 yards out.
Already players are thinking about the implications of each early season win, especially when one is against a top-25 opponent.
“Beating a ranked team at home will do wonders for us when it comes time for seeding in the NCAA,” Rouse said.
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