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Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — When a soccer team wins its first six games of the season by a combined 21-2 margin, two positions gain the majority of attention. Forwards receive the headlines for scoring goals and goalkeepers gain shutouts in the box score. Without defensive midfielders Alex Melin and Anne Marie Thomas, the University of Iowa women’s soccer team wouldn’t boast such staggering numbers.
Melin and Thomas pride themselves in playing a position that few volunteer to play. Being a defensive midfielder is tough work. Responsibilities include creating the attack in which you won’t get the final satisfaction of scoring and stopping the opponent attack without getting recognized with a shutout.
Defensive midfielders must win 50-50 balls in tough situations, both in the air and on the ground, and do that work with minimal attention. Iowa’s two workhorses thrive in that role.
“We take pride in winning 50-50 balls and keeping possession for the team,” Melin said. “We work hard and enjoy doing that kind of work.”
“We want to win every 50-50 ball and that’s our goal,” Thomas said. “That’s where we want to battle and that’s a battle we want to win.”
“They have both exceeded our expectations. They are complimenting each other very well. Alex and Anne Marie work extremely hard, win balls in the air and fight for every ball. It makes it hard for our opponents to set a tempo of play when those two are firing on all cylinders.”
UI head coach Ron Rainey on Melin and Thomas
That’s a battle that Melin and Thomas have won, a lot, in 2012. Iowa has dominated midfield play in its first six games and has only allowed a handful of goal scoring chances.
On the flip side, the duo’s creativity in the offensive third has led to numerous shots on goal, with 21 finding the back of the net.
Rainey appreciates the offensive skill, but is more impressed with their work on the defensive side.
“We’ve been able to create chances through them,” Rainey said. “But we have really eliminated our opponents’ chances to get quality looks in front of goal. Our opponents haven’t had many chances on net because Alex and Anne Marie have dominated the midfield.”
Playing a formation with two defensive midfielders can be a challenge. Players need to be in constant communication, flowing from one zone to the next in perfect harmony. Communication hasn’t been a problem for Melin and Thomas.
“I really like working with Anne Marie,” Melin said. “It’s fun being able to cover the entire field, and we work really well together.”
“We have done a really good job of communicating in our roles this year,” Thomas said. “It has been fun to work together. Sometimes she goes forward and I drop, or sometimes it’s the opposite.”
Rainey saw their potential during the recruiting process and has enjoyed watching the pair own the midfield.
“They have both exceeded our expectations,” Rainey said. “They are complimenting each other very well. Alex and Anne Marie work extremely hard, win balls in the air and fight for every ball. It makes it hard for our opponents to set a tempo of play when those two are firing on all cylinders.”
The athletic ability is obvious when watching Melin and Thomas play. The attitude toward the position is more impressive.
“We just try to get a bunch of brunt work done,” Melin said.
“I had a coach tell me once ‘you can rest when you are dead,'” Thomas said. “That’s how I’ve played since.”
Rainey leans heavily on his midfield pairing for leadership during matches. That’s usually a responsibility a coach gives to older players, but the attitude and work ethic of Melin and Thomas trump age.
Thomas is just a sophomore and Melin a junior. As good as the two are now, Rainey believes they will get better with time.
“The best part about the two is that we have Alex for two more years and Anne Marie for three,” Rainey said. “It takes a lot of discipline to do what they do, and they are incredible at it.”
The Hawkeyes return to action Friday at the Black Knight Classic in West Point, N.Y. Iowa opens play against Army beginning at 6 p.m. (CT) before facing LIU Brooklyn on Sunday at 10 a.m.