After beating Wyoming 4-0 on Sunday and tying Mississippi State on Thursday, the University of Minnesota Gopher Soccer team is 3-0-2, one of five teams in the nation that hasn’t allowed a goal in NCAA play, and only the second Big Ten team ever to begin a season with five straight shutouts. Erin Chastain is the fourth coach in Big Ten history to begin her tenure with five straight shutouts. Ok. Records noted. Now let’s dive a little deeper into the 5 things we can actually take away from the Gophers stout defensive start to the 2021 campaign.
1) Chastain making the most of the coaching change
Most new coaches benefit from a bit of a honeymoon period with the new team. Players who were less preferred by the previous coach think they might have new opportunities. Players who were already favored don’t worry too much because they’re already solidified into their roles. And everyone gets to have a change of pace after having essentially their entire lives dictated by this one person (their DI college head coach) for better or worse.
The early returns on new Head Coach Erin Chastain’s leadership style is that she’s making a positive impact far beyond just those early honeymoon period vibes. Captain Delaney Stekr spoke on the record about how her transparent communication style has really helped players understand where they are.
“She’s very direct. And she said that before she even coached us. But the way that she approaches is not that she’s trying to belittle us or trying to make us feel back. It’s just hey, you did this wrong, and here’s how you fix it. And she also uses a lot of film so it’s very easy to tell when she’s saying ‘this is what you should have done, here’s now we can correct it.’”
And the thing is, that transparent, direct communication doesn’t necessarily mean every player is feeling great or even in agreement about where they stand. Someone telling you you’re not playing because of X reason doesn’t mean you’re now happy about not playing. But across the team in general, that style has earned very positive reviews early on. But one thing is also clear, Chastain is not going to throw players out there on game day to see how they do (except in the 4-0 Wyoming win where we actually *did* get to see some new faces -- more on that later) unless they’ve already shown it in practice. The rotation has been tighter than in season’s past, in part because Chastain is starting with who she can trust and expanding from there. So, ball out in practice, Gophs! That’s where you’ll earn more minutes.
2) Light schedule, but still, solid results
We’re not sure how this year’s schedule would officially compare to, say, the combined opponent RPI of non-conference schedules of the past. But I think it’s fair to say this is one of the easier non-conference slates in recent Gopher Soccer history. And yes, the team is still playing to their competition a bit, but it feels *just* a bit different than in the past. First of all, they haven’t let any of the grind it out 0-0 games this year drift into a random loss (very common, even for super competitive Gopher teams and college soccer teams in general). They’ve been able to turn poor performances overall into at least ties. What we need to start seeing, if they want to crack the top 5 or 6 in the Big Ten, is turning at least some of those dragout tie-type games into narrow wins. It felt like they might do that against Mississippi State, when Izzy Brown had multiple almost-goals. And they at least built on the momentum of some improved combination in the final third against M State and put four goals up on Wyoming after only scoring 2 the previous four games.
And as much as we make light of the non-conference slate, Baylor (who Minnesota beat on opening night) has also now tied Wisconsin (who is picked to finish roughly one million spots higher than Minnesota by Big Ten coaches) so that’s at bare minimum a quality win. And, as Coach Chastain said after the 1-0 Drake win: you take wins however you can get them. We’ll expand that to say you take 5 straight shutouts however you can get them, as well.
3) Boman and the (outside) backs getting into attack
There are times when the Gopher attack seems to largely rely on Khyah Harper, Patricia Ward, and Jaden Peck types to run onto balls served just over the back line. And, though Delaney Stekr and Makenzie Langdok are capable of serving such a ball from their own backline, that kind of attack can get a bit predictable to deal with. Izzy Brown has helped by being more proactive in establishing some hold up play the last few games. But what’s also helped is simply having *more* players up there with her.
At times outside backs Langdok and Abi Frandsen have claimed more space on the wing and given the Gophers more numbers on the strong side of the attack -- Frandsen commonly does so when given even the smallest of windows to dribble through (which she will immediately pounce on and slice through), Langdok as an option for a more central player to release to on the near wing where she can send in a swerving ball back post. We’ve praised that offensive progression before (and will continue to do so).
Against Wyoming, though, the Gophers took another step forward in the evolution of their attack. Sophia Boman can, at times, feel like more of a box to box midfielder because of her ability to cover ground, instincts to track all the way back to her own third, and ridiculously endless motor. But she has felt most dangerous as an attacking midfielder when she works slightly wider as a way to combine with players out on the wing. As a dribbler, she showed an ability to beat her defender, turn the corner, and dribble along the end line toward goal April Bockin style.
But she’s also able to combine out there as the outside back works forward and the near side forward works across the box and the far side forward provides an option for service. At times, even the far side outside back (Frandsen) provided a trailing run to the top of the box (good lord is she fun to watch) and it’s something holding mid Lauren Donovan should be able to provide as she gets more willing to push forward as well (she’s shown she can shoot).
Overall, the game by game progression has been good. And getting Izzy Brown and Khyah Harper their first career goals will help them be a bit more relaxed and confident as we inch closer to Big Ten play (more on that later).
4) First glance at some first years
Another benefit of a 4-0, is being able to go a big deeper on your bench and let some first year players get their “first time on the field” jitters out of the way while also seeing how they do playing with a few starters. Ansley Connor (from NDSU exhibition All Mustard Team fame) got in at outside mid. Eva Bruer isn’t a first year but she’s battled injuries, is a fantastic teammate, and we stan her so she gets a shoutout. Taryn Reitsma saw some solid minutes spelling starting keeper Megan Plaschko and kept the shutout streak alive. And, as keeper coach Tarah Nupson has mentioned, with two young backup keepers you just need to know one can run out there and not be freaking out if there is random situation where Plaschko has to come off. So, #MissionAccomplished, I’d say. Jaden Peck has already been playing in the forward rotation so NBD for her. So I guess that’s it for fun bench players seeing the fiel---
YOU KNOW WE WERE NOT GOING TO END THIS POST WITHOUT TALKING ABOUT MADDIE BAKER. Baker saw her first minutes of her Gopher Soccer career against Mississippi State in extra time when Minnesota had a corner kick with just minutes to go (and where a goal would end the/win them the game). She didn’t get on the score sheet then, but thankfully made her second ever appearance against Wyoming and she...was...SAUCY.
From the time she stepped on campus (and probably for her entire life), all anyone has asked about is her height. But Bake does a lot more that just hangout in the six yard box and be tall. I’m sure she’s been called this before and it’s pretty damn low hanging fruit but Shake and Bake should not be out of the question on the nick name front. We’ll check to see if she hates that or has something better before we ink this one in, but pencil it in for now. She tries some shit and, frankly, some of the times it was working pretty well. She turned the corner on an outside back at one point. She has some agility. And if she can be literally *any* amount of corner kick threat she should see minutes. Because Minnesota earns the hell out of them while converting none (so far).
5) Can they keep building to Big Ten play?
The biggest test for Minnesota in their final two games of non-conference play won’t be whether they can win, it should be *how* they win. If our optimistic view is correct (Mississippi State had some signs of offensive progress, Wyoming was actually demonstrating those steps through goals) than the real test is whether the progression continues. Omaha is no joke (they beat Nebraska) but they also lost to Wyoming, the team Minnesota just beat 4-0. So if Minnesota plays to its potential, it should be a big win on paper. North Dakota is loaded with Minnesota and always competes well but they just lost to DII Bemidji State (we see you, Beavers) and should also be a big win on paper.
But *on paper* Minnesota should have beaten Drake more decisively and probably shouldn’t have tied University of Illinois Chicago. So these last two games will be the test for whether the Gophers have turned a corner. Two shutouts and 5 or more goals scored would be the baseline goal we’d set for the next two. And more goals than that shouldn’t be out of the question.
The first Big Ten game of the season for Minnesota is against Wisconsin at home. Let’s see if they can head into that game HOT and ready to Rock the Robbie.
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