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Loons defender Boxall calls on his New Zealand rugby roots

Minnesota United defender Michael Boxall is shown during a July 22 match between Los Angeles FC and Minnesota United at TCF Bank Stadium. Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — During rugby lessons in New Zealand physical education classes, a young Michael Boxall and his Kiwi classmates asked their large physical education teacher to run straight at them.

The teacher was 6 feet tall, more than 200 pounds and had a background playing rugby for a provincial side within a country infatuated with the sport and its All Blacks national team.

"The goal was always to try to bring him down," Boxall said. "He would obviously leave a lot of us on our (butts)."

Boxall was 13 years old then and a far cry from the 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame he now uses to his advantage with Minnesota United in Major League Soccer.

"It was pretty intimidating, but those are the challenges you like to see," said Boxall, now 29.

Last Saturday, Aug. 11, Boxall and the Loons didn't back down to 6-foot-5, 210-pound striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the Los Angeles Galaxy in a 2-2 draw. Keeping Ibrahimovic scoreless — and Boxall adding his first MLS goal — helped Minnesota earn its first road point since March.

When comparing soccer and rugby, Boxall sees similarities in their "combative nature."

"For me, to try to impose myself on attackers and stop them from doing what they like to do and make them feel a little bit uncomfortable," Boxall said. "It's more mental than anything physical, I think. That's the kind of stuff I draw from those (rugby) days."

Asked about Boxall's physical attributes, United coach Adrian Heath steered his remarks to a more unexpected trait.

"Boxy is quicker than people think," Heath said. "I can't think of anybody that has completely outrun him this year. So he is quicker than you think, and then you have the size of him. Once he gets the spot and he gets the arm up (into an opponent's chest), and growing up wanting to be an All Black, the physical confrontation is not going to be a problem for him."

"I prefer having it over being slow," Boxall deadpanned.

Boxall will need both speed and strength again when the Loons (9-13-2) face speedy FC Dallas (12-5-6) on Saturday at Toyota Stadium. Boxall's role in the match against the Western Conference leader will be amplified with fellow defender Francisco Calvo and defensive midfielder Collen Warner both sidelined because of suspensions.

"We call (Boxall) the silent assassin," Heath said. "He doesn't say an awful lot, but he gets his job done and leaves a marker on people."

Boxall played only competitive rugby as a child before following his friend, Hamish McKinstly, to soccer when he was about 10. Boxall has since blazed his own trail on the New Zealand national soccer team with more than 30 appearances and nearly helped the Kiwis qualify for the World Cup in Russia earlier this summer.

The All Blacks rugby team is famous for its pre-match Haka, a choreographed dance of war that honors the country's Maori culture, but Boxall said FIFA's strict timing rules have kept the national soccer team from doing it, too.

"When you are younger, you grow up looking up to (the All Blacks), and (Haka) is one of the coolest parts of New Zealand culture," Boxall said. "It just brings us back to our roots."

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