The Gophers won a Big Ten soccer title Sunday in a match resembling the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, where Brandi Chastain capped hours of scoreless tension with an unforgettable shootout goal.
This time, the game’s final conquering hero was a goalkeeper.
Maddie Nielsen’s intimidating presence, keen instincts and steely nerves helped Minnesota cap an improbable championship run as the tournament’s No. 7 seed.
The Gophers were an NCAA tournament bubble team, needing the conference title to extend their season. Facing top-seeded Penn State, the game remained 0-0 through 90 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute, sudden-death overtimes.
“Just ignoring the fact this huge thing is on the line really helps you,” Nielsen said. “It’s honestly so mental at that point because if you make little mistakes, the game’s over.”
Nielsen is a 6-1 sophomore from Shoreline, Wash., who took over as the Gophers full-time goalkeeper this season and had one September stretch when she went 533 consecutive minutes without allowing a goal.
She added three straight shutouts in the Big Ten tourney, earning defensive MVP honors.
“She’s got tremendous size,” coach Stefanie Golan said. “When we played against [No. 2-seeded] Rutgers in the quarterfinal, she faced a couple of one-on-one opportunities, with a really, really good attacking player and shut them all down.”
The Big Ten tournament had never come down to penalty kicks before. The Gophers and Penn State were tied 4-4 after six rounds on a neutral field in Westfield, Ind.
Makenzie Langdok scored, giving Minnesota a 5-4 lead. Nielsen bounced up and down, staring down All-Big Ten midfielder Frankie Tagliaferri. The shot came, and Nielsen dived left, blocking it with her gloves, before getting mobbed by her teammates.
“Everyone was confident Maddie was going to save at least one,” Golan said. “If you watched the shootout, she went the correct way on every single kick. She almost had one or two more [saves], so you knew she was going to do that.”
Penalty kicks zoom at goaltenders from 12 yards away. Before Chastain made her legendary shot against China, Team USA goaltender and former Anoka High standout Briana Scurry made the save setting the stage.
Nielsen said Gophers goalkeeping director Alli Lipsher has helped her predict which way penalty kicks are coming.
“You can definitely guess,” Nielsen said. “What I do is I look at their knee. When they open up their knee, it probably means they’re going to my left. But when they close their knee, it probably means they’re going toward my right.”
On Monday, the Gophers drew a matchup against Auburn to start the NCAA tournament on Friday afternoon in Auburn, Ala. This is a Minnesota team that gave the nation’s No. 1 team, Stanford, a serious scare in September before falling 2-1 in overtime.
Golan has a group of seniors that also won the Big Ten title two years ago as the No. 1 seed before falling to North Carolina State in a shootout to start the NCAA tournament. In Nielsen, Minnesota has added a budding force in the net.
Sizing up her team’s NCAA title chances, Golan said, “I think anything’s possible.”