Let’s get the hard part out of the way. This season was rough. The Gopher Soccer team didn’t just have its worst record of the Stefanie Golan era, it had its worst record of all time. After averaging 40 goals per season the last three years, the Gophers got on the board only 10 times. It was the most glaring issue for a team that lost three bonafide stars in the front six from a year ago in April Bockin, Molly Fiedler, and Emily Heslin.
That kind of roster transition was always going to be tough. But even if you assume the possibility of a pretty low floor in terms how the season could go, this was still outside of anything I would have predicted before camp. There were a few games here and there where Minnesota could have gotten a better result, but that’s been true for more successful teams of the past few years as well. There’s always some element of playing down (and, at times, up) to the competition for this squad.
Two competing strategies to team building keep popping into my mind as I think about the underlying challenges this year’s team had: weak link vs strong link. The thinking essentially boils down to whether it makes sense to prioritize improving the best player on the field or improving the worst player on the field. When Malcom Gladwell borrowed the concept for a recent book of his, he described the two concepts using the examples of basketball and soccer. Because basketball only has five players and each player can have such an impact on both ends of the floor, it makes sense to prioritize upgrading your best player and improve your strengths than to improve your worst player and reduce a weakness. Because a soccer match has so many players and any one single mistake can decide the entire game, it makes sense to improve your weakest player on the field to make sure they don’t cause the one mistake that costs you the game.
I bring up those competing theories because I used to think the way he described soccer largely made sense. But this Gopher soccer team has shattered that reality. Sure, there were times when a single player made a single mistake that cost Minnesota a single result. And there were many times when lineup changes occurred to correct for, or prevent future, mistakes like that. But those “weak link” situations were far, *far* from the reason the team wasn’t able to get more results on the field across the entire season. The more noticeable gap was in the lack of a top line attacker who could be the threat that other teams game-planned around.
To put it another way, this team was actually pretty loaded with solid complimentary attacking pieces. But the lack of a steady scorer meant that every one of those complementary players had to play up a slot or two on the depth chart. This meant they not only didn’t perform up to the standards of the slot they were playing in, they may also have underperformed the hypothetical version of themselves that had the luxury of playing with a top talent who drew the attention of the defense.
That journey down the rabbit hole was probably a bit too long, and I sort of already covered this topic a bit when discussing who on the team had the chance to develop the top shelf combination of skills hinted at above, but in some ways the potential for a bounce back season next year really does come down to whether anyone can take a big enough jump to really own the offense. And to continue trying to answer that question, we GO TO THE AWARDS!!
(Stats also included here. The team no longer posts season long minute totals so we added those up. It was harder to draw the Buisman Line that decides who was “in the rotation” this year, but Koker seemed to be the cutoff. Six other plays saw minutes below it - including Yacovella, Roberts, Harper, and others - and they all also had their moments)
Rookie of the Year: Katie Duong
This is the first year the Gophers have had so many transfers, in addition to freshmen, but for the sake of this award I stuck to the *ten person* freshmen class. The winner almost certainly has to be Katie Duong. From the first moments of her college career, it was clear that Duong’s individual skills (passing, dribbling, defending, etc) were completely up to snuff. That might sound like an underhanded complement, but as a central midfielder, that level of consistently is half the battle. She’s confident on the ball, willing to take shots from distance, and good in combination when teammates found a way to connect with her. The only frustrating moments were when she drifted farther back to play more defensively. She has the tools - she’s a super feisty defender - but it usually meant losing her abilities in the attack. Her stats won’t exactly blow your mind this season (who’s did?), but we wouldn’t be surprised to see her as a 10goals/10assists players moving forward.
Rookie of the Year - Honorable Mentions
Paige Elliott - Surprise! You found a starting centerback! Elliott came in to camp as a highly touted central midfielder that was big and physical. Early on, she played some consistent minutes as the holding midfielder. Then, she showed some flashes up top as a forward as she and Nummerdor essentially flipped spot. Then, she got moved to centerback in the continuous shuffle for stability the team sought throughout the years. And wouldn’t you know it, the girl can play everywhere. Her ability in the air is what coaches rave about first - it’s a rare and valuable skill on both ends - but her consistency is what stuck out to me. Lineups can always shuffle from season to season, and Elliott has shown she can play anywhere, but I hope she sticks at CB.
Manthy Brady - From what we hear, Brady is actually a very quiet and polite teammate. But that’s not her personality on the field. Her game might have the most swagger on the team, and certainly the most out of a freshman since Celina Nummerdor broke into the scene with her patented shoulder shimmy. If the Gophers shift back to their traditional 4-3-3, pencil Brady in as my preferred center forward. She has the dream mix of skills where she can hold a defender on her back as she holds up play for her teammates and then turn and GO AT the defense and rip a shot. It’s almost like an “f you” attitude and. We. Are. Here for it.
Sadie Harper - I’m know their hometowns technically are not anywhere close to each other, but I’m not convinced that Sadie Harper and Katie Koker didn’t grow up playing as the starting backcourt for a basketball team that played a soul crushing full court press. Prove to me that it *didnt* happen. Harper didn’t even crack the Buisman Line and I already know she’s going to spend four years as a rotation player that other teams hate to play against and coaches yell at their teams about missing on a backpost run. You know that place in the first half when both teams kinda change out their attack by bringing in subs and the flow of the game resets in a way where havoc defense and pure hustle can create a surprise goal? Sadie Harper is the Mayor of that place. Katie Koker is the city manager. And a Megan Gray is the super chill grifter who glides into town. Ok. This metaphor has gotten away from me. Next category.
Most Improved Player - Alana Dressely
A great individual defender won’t always get noticed that much. Partly because their highlight plays only happen a few times a game and partly because being a great individual defender means teams may avoid attacker your part of the field altogether. Coaches raved about Dressely last season but she wasn’t able to crack the rotation as a freshmen. As a parent of another young player described it (and I’m heavily paraphrasing), being young means even if you have the physical tools to succeed as a freshman, you might not be able to fully utilize them because your thinking as you learn the system has to catch up first. This year, Dressely caught up. She’s consistent. She doesn’t really make silly mistakes. And she had a handful of legit goal saving chase downs when an opponent broke through the line. For someone who doesn’t present as a down and out sprinter, that’s really impressive. Pencil Dressely in as a starting outside back. For the foreseeable future.
Most Improved Player - Honorable Mention
Celina Nummerdor - Celina Nummerdor was, flat out, one of my favorite players to watch this season. She showed plenty of potential as a freshmen getting spot minutes two years ago, and some solid progress last year - but this year was a jump. The same skills of her’s that I’ve always liked for her as a possible target forward - confident on the ball, smart decision maker, good touch - were all improved even further this year. And one major skill - physical defending and ball protection - also shined through in a major way. If she can take another jump next year, it could go a long way toward solidifying the midfield and letting Duong work farther down field.
Haley Hartkemeyer - What can we say about Hartke that we haven’t already brought up on most live tweets - this girl works her tail off. If you ever needed an example of how topline speed and a sprinkle of confidence can have an impact all on their own, please search “hartke” on our twitter page. This is a direct note to every Gopher soccer player who feels they deserve a bigger role than they had this year: do what Hartke did. Work your tail off in the spring practices and the weight room. Stay in/get in killer shape. And play with confidence. Her jump from back of the bench to getting field time for a Big Ten team is inspiring. But it’s not impossible for other Gophers replicate its they work hard.
Marisa Windingstad - Can we take a minute to appreciate what has happened here. I went from nervous about how ‘Ris would do as a first time starter at outside back last year, to watching her in awe as the most steady presence on the back line as a senior captain. I was reminded at a recent match that Windingstad’s story - as much as it’s impressive individually - also speaks to the ability of the coaching staff to develop players to their maximum potential. ‘Ris, we’ll miss you back there.
Most Valuable Player - Athena Kuehn
With so few offensive stats to use - and no access to more comprehensive stats like passing percentage, challenges won, etc - this one is a little tricky. But if we’re going on a mix of pure talent and on field performance, we probably can’t start with anyone but Athena Kuehn. Two years ago, Kuehn was a freshmen getting consistent minutes off the bench in the midfield who seemed to have good body control, steady passing, and almost no bad habits. Last year, after a devastating ACL injury to Emily Peterson, Kuehn was a fantastically consistent centerback. This year, the coaching staff understandably kept her there in an effort to solidify the defensive shape in hopes that other players could do just enough on offense to keep the team above water. Eventually, after it was clear that lineup wasn’t going to cut it, Kuehn was moved up field and immediately made an impact in the attack. She has the speed and athleticism to match up with basically anyone in the Big Ten and her soccer IQ allows her to play essentially anywhere. That kind of versatility can be a double edged sword. Where will she land in next year’s lineup? Pairing her with Elliott would make for a steady pair in the back but a triangle of Nummerdor, Kuehn, and Duong could also be devastating in the midfield. Speaking of Duong...
Most Valuable Player - Honorable Mention
Katie Duong - We won’t add too much on to what was said in the Rookie of the Year summary, but we do want to make one comparison. Midfielder who starts from day one. Has the defending and attacking ability to play virtually anywhere. Can pivot the attack the moment the ball hits her foot. Just the right mix of grit and agility to scare the crap out of opposing teams. If Katie Duong isn’t the soccer sister of Molly Fiedler than I don’t know who is. Fiedler will go down as maybe the most under-awarded player in my time covering the Gophers - someone who got a fifth of the shine as surrounding stars while serving as the foundation the other stars built their performance upon. Duong’s ceiling is probably as an even more dangerous, slightly more offensive version of Fiedler - which is about as high a compliment as I can pay. Her all freshmen Big Ten honor was also the first since Nikki Albrecht. #Transition
Nikki Albrecht - Speaking of freshmen phenoms: can you even believe Nikki Albrecht has played her last game in maroon and gold? My first interview covering the team was with Nikki Albrecht for Fifty Five One after she earned her own all freshmen accolades. All she did in her four years was to play basically every minute of every game as a lock down defender and someone who, despite that funky gate to her stride, could bomb down the field and wreak havoc in the final third. She lost a step of pure speed this year, but Give Me The Ball In The Final Third and I’ll Take The Rock to the Hole Nikki Albrecht was honestly one of the most fun things to watch the whole season. She took defenders *on* and it was magic.
Marisa Windingstad - I don’t always have a ton of people to bounce ideas off of when it comes to this team. There are some dynamite hardcore fans who support the site, a ton of parents who give great insights, coaches who are always willing to chat, but I still sometimes feel like I don’t get a chance to gut check all of my perceptions. This might be one of those times, but I frankly don’t care. I thought Windingstad was an absolute badass this year. Admittedly, live tweeting games means I have to largely track the ball and not watch off ball positioning and movement as much. So I don’t know that I have the best perception of defensive shape compared to someone who focused their attention there a bit more. But all the lineup shifts I mentioned in all the categories above were only possible because Windingstad was a steadying presence back there. Plus she’s a twin (like me) so she gets bonus points.
There are several lineup questions that are essentially unanswerable until next August, but that won’t stop us from trying. Where will Kuehn play? Will Koker shift back to more backline minutes after seeing time in the midfield? Who will step into the Catherine Billings role of “oh wow this person is playing now, wait, can they even afford to take her out of this game?” We’ll try to watch what we can in spring and keep in touch with the staff, but those questions are probably only good for #content and not really even answerable.
The ACLs. How will they heal? Buisman is on a different timeline than Del Moral and Ward, who both tore them a few weeks back. She might be able to get in, throw some shoulders around, and make some space in the attacking rotation. We’ll see. I’m excited to what her play again. Sources say she already finished her undergrad degree this semester?! Come on, Kenna. Cool it. You’re showing off.
The transfer portal. It exists. And it is going to be a topic of conversation for this team. THIRTEEN new players came in to camp for this team in August. And only five are graduating. It’s almost objectively true that the roster is oversized. And if it isn’t objectively true, it’s true because those close to the team believe it’s true (and I’d agree). The wildcard will be: which specific players feel this is the right time to move on? That’s almost impossible for us to predict. As an example, will all four keepers stick it out considering no one is graduating? Nielsen’s save percentage hovered in the mid .700s the last two years, which is well below top starters in the conference but she also punched the team’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament in the Big Ten PK shootout last season. Will the younger keepers stay and try to unseat her or will they want to find an easier path to starter’s minutes? It’s the least comfortable topic to write about and a tough season meant we largely ignored it - but it’s real.
On the other side, who might Minnesota be able to bring in off the transfer market? A standout centerback could allow the Gophers to keep someone like Kuehn in the front six. A dynamite midfielder might push her to the back line. I’ll keep my ear to the ground. Feel free to send a DM if you want to tip us off to anything.
(We'll have a full, end of season recap show with Coach Golan later this month that should be posted as both a video and podcast. We'll embed that here once it's complete)
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