The Erin Chastain era of Gopher Soccer has started off with a win and a draw in non-conference play. And while some of the early trends seem eerily familiar to the past couple seasons for University of Minnesota fans -- playing to the level of the opponent, lack of scoring, etc -- it’s clear that in other ways this year’s team has already raised the floor on their potential. Let’s dive into 3 key takeaways from the Gophers opening win against Baylor and tie against University of Illinois Chicago.
1) Some things never change
The Gopher defense has looked strong and kept opponents off the board while struggling to score themselves and they’ve sorta played up and down to their competition so far -- sound familiar?! But don’t let (seemingly) continued trends downgrade how truly impressive it is that this year’s Gopher squad is as locked in defensively as last year’s. Katie Koker (no longer playing) and Patrica Ward (yet to pass the fitness test, and playing forward this season anyway) are both gone from the outside back rotation. As is Alana Dressely, who had shifted to centerback before suffering a season ending leg injury in the St Thomas exhibition. As is Athena Kuehn who made the All Big Ten Third Team but felt like an all-american with the impact she had last spring.
So this defense is relying on Megan Plaschko, a stout but still fairly new starter in goal, and Delaney Stekr, who’s played roughly 1.5 full seasons in her career, to be the veterans of a completely rebuilt defense. And you know what, they are absolutely pulling the damn thing off! Freshman Elizabeth Overberg has gone from a possible end of the rotation midfielder (because Lauren Donovan and Sophia Boman are 90 minutes players at the central midfielder spots already) to a starting *CENTERBACK*. I will not apologize for that all-caps, because it is *incredibly* rare for any freshman to start on the backline, even less common for a centerback specifically to start that young, and absurdly and bonkers rare for a random midfielder -- with some spot experience filling in at the youth level -- to just go ahead and look solid from jump after almost truly not training there with this team.
Kenzie Langdok has looked like a natural at right back after spending four years exclusively at forward. Abi Frandsen has mountains of potential at left back thanks to her length and athleticism mixed with a willingness to try some shit (the technical term US Soccer uses in coaching training, we’re sure). More on these two later.
And as much as they maybe let UIC dictate the style of play a bit (and got a little distracted by the physicality and scrappiness the Flames brought) there are early signs that the lack of finishing won’t really continue.
2) The floor has been raised
Yes, Minnesota is scoring less than a goal a game and has already had their first “drag this thing into extra time even though it’s the second match of the weekend” let down result. *But*, even without break out statistical performances, this team has shown it has what it takes to inch that chance creation higher. Khyah Harper is working her ass off to put pressure on opposing centerbacks and consistently getting the ball in dangerous positions, even as she’s struggled to get the perfect turn that can release some shots on goal. Izzy Brown hasn’t even really found her rhythm yet offensively and she’s still finding ways to impact the game by tracking back on defense and battling on 50/50 balls. Both of these two are going to click eventually and score multiple goals a piece. We are 100 percent sure of that.
Jaden Peck is just an absolute pest when she gets minutes up top. She’s covering ground, burning hot, and doing what fresh legs are supposed to do -- jolt the offense a bit after the starters have been a little worn down. We’ve haven’t even seen Patricia Ward up top yet (see note above) or Maddie Baker (seems to be doing full warm ups but not yet seeing game minutes).
And yes, they have continued their trend of piling up a ton of corner kicks all for maybe zero (?) dangerous chances on goal. But those feel like they may come. Christa Van Loon and Kenna Buisman can both serve a dangerous ball in, it just hasn’t been super consistent service just yet. Meg Gray has been slippery with the ball at her feet. Boman is just *frightening* for defenses once she gets moving down hill. Lauren Donovan is somewhat reluctant to shoot but at times has the space too -- and hopefully gets more comfortable shooting from distance like she did for her goal against St Thomas in the preseason. Our guess is the team averages more than a goal a game from here on out.
3) Gophers game to game progression is impressive
Last spring, when everyone kept talking about how athletic and talented Sophia Boman was as a freshman (both true) and how fantastic she looked from jump (also true), we were more impressed by the little game to game improvements she kept making. And now, that same block-by-block improvement she and others had last spring is happening team wide. Remember, Head Coach Erin Chastain has been able to work with this team for a total of like 20 minutes. They started training camp, had a few days, and almost immediately had an exhibition match.
But that quick introduction of 11v11 play (rare for this team, because internally they’ve haven’t really had the numbers to play full sided basically at all) also meant they were able to immediately start testing what worked and getting things on tape. They started by getting the basics right: simple passes, keep your defensive shape, etc. Then they moved on to avoiding basic pitfalls: don’t drift too narrow, keep your width. Then some focus on progression: can we build possession and control the midfield and run of play.
And each of these things has been at least somewhat obvious in terms of game to game improvement. But easily the most clear progression has come from the outside backs. Chastain mentioned in the very first interview we did with her that her ideal system would involve plenty of attacking down the wing from her outside backs. Of course she also admitted that it might take a while to actually *get to* that ideal system. And yet, even just four games (two exhibitions, two regular season) the team has progressed to a point where Langdok and Frandsen sort of know how they can make an impact there.
As we mentioned, UIC was a savvy, scrappy opponent (as Minnesotan Jelena Zbiljic speaks to above) and able to keep Minnesota off the scoreboard. But some of the most exciting silver linings to that grind of a game was seeing Frandsen immediately claim space when opponents left too big of a cushion when she had the ball at her feet and seeing Langdok run big overlaps on the right and serving super tight bending service into the box. Frandsen’s experience as an attacker is evident the moment she starts slicing through opponents like a hot knife through butter, with the ball almost stuck to her foot on the dribble. Langdok’s experience, mixed with the opportunity -- for the first time -- to play in the back with the whole field in her sight line, has helped her find open space and receive the ball and whip it in for runners.
Those two adding numbers in the attack will only further bolster attackers like Meg Gray and Izzy Brown who do well combining in the final third but desperately need teammates to *be* in the final third with them to do so.
Next up: Gophers play AT Drake, Thursday at 6PM. Broadcast on ESPN+. Live tweet highlights on the Equal Time Soccer Twitter account (I’ll be there to cover in person)
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