The Gophers enter Big Ten Conference play at the very bottom of the standings. And sure, they’ve had moments of great play here and there, so they could just stay the course and continue developing their young talent. Or they could try something crazy while the stakes are relatively low. We choose to write about the second one. Here are 4 crazy ideas for the Gophers to try as they enter Big Ten play - from the smallest tweak to biggest change.
1) Specifically put top athletes at center forward
The Gophers sometimes play aggressive. They’re willing to mix it up and play physical. But no one would accuse them of playing reckless. In fact, tactically, they’re sometimes a bit conservative. In particular, they’ve tended to choose steady hands over pure athleticism in the center forward position in the 4-3-3. If someone can offer top shelf athleticism AND great possession and decision making skills (waves to April Bockin as she walks by) they can get some minutes there.
But when choosing between the two skill sets, Head Coach Stefanie Golan has chosen to employ players like Makenzie Langdok - a sure footed hold-up player who can find seams and finish a ball in the box - over someone like Patricia Ward - a lightning fast striker who’s first step is deadly when used correctly. When we guessed that Megan Gray might be getting some minutes there, it was largely in the same model as always - savvy player over all out athlete. It might be fun to see some of the scrappy speedsters like Ward, Sadie Harper, or Haley Hartekmeyer get some minutes there to spearhead the press - even just for a few chunks of time per game. They pose a bit more risk in possession where a turnover can lead to a dangerous counter attack by the other team, but maybe it will lead to highlights for us to tweet! (Cavalier attitude used intentionally)
2) Shift to more of a 4-2-3-1
Shifting from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 isn’t exactly earth shattering. In fact, depending on how a team uses each formation, they can basically be the same thing. But our purpose for bringing up the idea is to talk about leveraging Katie Duong. Everyone, please listen up. Duong is very good. If you haven’t watched a game in person and decide to fact check that last sentence with a glance to the season stats, you might not believe us. But no one has earth shattering stats on this egalitarian team.
The problem with someone like Duong actually comes from some of her top strengths: her effort and smarts. When the team isn’t connecting well, or when the opposing team is building dangerous possession in the Gophers final third, Duong will track all the way back to her own box and intervene. She’ll connect a pass to get things going. She’ll intercept an opposing pass. She’ll do whatever it takes to get the pendulum to swing the other way. We’ve stopped ourselves from using the comparison to this point, but she’s essentially stepped directly into Molly Fiedler’s role as a true freshman.
But other midfielders like Page Elliott and Celina Nummerdor have also shown some quality defensive play this year. So what if the Gophers intentionally shifted Duong up to more of a pure attacking midfielder role to take advantage of her ball handling and passing abilities in the final third? To be honest, this is not that dramatic of a change. She already gets plenty of play in the attack and works her tail off the entire game even when tracking back. But she also carries a big burden with her work rate box to box so it would be fun to see what she could do while focusing a bit more on the opponents net.
3) Duong as an outside winger
Ok. Last idea focused on Katie Duong. But if her box to box work rate and abilities most closely resemble a now graduated midfielder, her confidence on the dribble most resemble a now graduated winger; April Bockin. Losing her talents in the middle of the field might seem like a silly - or, possibly, stupid - decision. But as mentioned previously, this team has some players who can at least hold down the midfield (add Arianna Del Moral, maybe Megan Gray, and for some bruising shoulder to shoulder work Emily Bunnell, to the two mentioned in our second idea).
You’re not convinced. We can tell. So for a second close your eyes. Think back to those Gopher counter attacks where someone sends a ball to April Bockin on the wing. Bockin settles it with a nice first touch. The anticipation builds. She readies her shoulders over the ball and reads the defender. The crowd grows antsy, ready for the next move. She makes a quick burst past the defender and turns the corner from the end line to deliver diagonal ball toward the penalty spot. The crowd holds their breath. An attacker slots home an easy goal and the CROWD GOES WILD!!! All we’re saying is, Duong has the skills and the moxy necessary to perform the beautifully written role in the wonderfully crafted one act play described above.
4) Play Athena Kuehn at center forward leading the press
Is she the best centerback on the team? Yes. Is she maybe one of the best centerbacks in the whole conference? Yes. But give us one good reason why that means Athena Kuehn can’t play as the team’s center forward? [holds finger to earpiece, listens to producer whisper “yea, uh, because she’s the team’s best centerback”]. Ok. That’s ONE reason...
By now we have fully outed ourselves as being fully obsessed with the Gophers’ press. And every time Kuehn takes off after turning the other team over, her runs through space - similar to Nikki Albrecht’s - are just electrifying. Even when she hasn’t crossed the midfield line it feels like the break is on. Imagine if those turnovers were happening in the middle third or the final third and the break turned immediately into a chance on goal!
Yes. Defending on the backline is different than defending in the open field. And yes, the Gopher defense wasn’t as solid when Kuehn played in the midfield earlier this year. But quit living in the past. We are all solution oriented people, now. We envision the world we want to live in and we make it happen. Cachet Lue shifts to centerback. Alana Dressely starts at outside back. Katie Koker off the bench at outside back. And Athena Freakin Kuehn is your 90 minutes a game center forward. You’re welcome for the solid gold, no-way-this-goes-wrong, we-write-about-soccer-but-face-no-consequences idea, Coach Golan.
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