As Minnesota’s no-longer-so-new DI women’s soccer team begins their training camp for the 2023 season, let’s take a look at five basic questions to keep an eye on as we inch closer to St Thomas’s exhibition matches next week.
How much do they utilize the new box midfield?
Last spring, we were sworn to secrecy during the unveiling of a new formation the Tomcats were testing out. After facing a few too many games where a four players midfield seemed to leave St Thomas structurally (and literally) undermanned in their 4-3-3 formation, Head Coach Sheila McGill wanted to make sure the squad had another option to turn to, if needed. So, all spring, they trained what could either be described as a 4-2-2-2 or, more simply, a 4-4-2 box midfield.
During the early days of camp this fall, the Tomcats have been training both. In their traditional 4-3-3, you might see a Camryn Rintoul holding with Sofia Caballero and Ellie Tempero in front of her (a pretty damn solid midfield, honestly). In the boxed setup, maybe you add a Molly Knoblach (or Lissa Mizutani…? More on that later) next to Cam to add a little defensive juice.
Best guess? We see the 4-3-3 as the starting formation until it’s proven to be deficient. They might even make it through non-conference without going box. But they spent quite a bit of time getting all the returning players comfortable with the basics in the spring so it would be at least a little surprising if we don’t see the 4-2-2-2 show up this fall.
Where does Lissa Mizutani go?
Partly this question is literally about Lissa Mizutani and partly it's about the idea of how one player move impacts another. Mizutani, for example, can do *at least* fairly well as an outside back, centerback, and holding midfielder. She and Anna Koepke could be twin towers at centerback. Or, she could hop into that second holding midfield spot next to Rintoul as needed. Or, she could stick to right back, where she looked so lethal both during spring scrimmages and all summer for Rochester in the USL W League.
Other than quality fundamentals and overall strong play, Mizutani’s calling card from that right back spot (once you see it, you *cannot* unsee it) is her affinity to claim space the minute the defense gives it to her. The ball might swing her way and the defense is laying back because a big tall outside back doesn’t seem to raise their danger antenna. Mizutani will calmly work the ball forward as the defense continues to give her a bit of a cushion – more focused on cutting off her passing lanes than actually stopping the progress forward. But that time and space also gives her the time to survey the attacking wingers two lines ahead of her in the formation and the second one of those wingers shows even a twitch of movement she’ll launch a 25-35 yard diagonal ball right on their feet as they spring at full speed toward goal, ready to put St Thomas on the board. She did it against the Gophers in the spring. She did it regularly in the W League for Rochester. It might as well be called the Lis Miz (or something much more clever and catchy).
But the point is, the place she lands will impact other positions, as well. Koepke and Eckroth could be penciled in at CB right now, but does incoming transfer Sydney Kubes push for minutes there as well? If Lissa spends time at CB does that push Eckroth (a core contributor from last year you expect to play) elsewhere?
It may just be that you get Abby Branter at left back, Annika Eckroth and Anna Koepke at CB (with Kubes as the solid third CB option), and Lissa Mizutani at right back, end of discussion. But keep an eye on whether that shifts both when the boxed midfield becomes required OR as St Thomas get into more and more games that grind to a halt and they need to mix things up to unlock a drag-it-out match.
Of the first “regular” DI freshmen class, who pops?
All the previous DI recruiting classes were human beings as well. They were “regular” people as individuals. But they also were absolutely super sized as a group. 11 players. A dozen players. These are not normal recruiting classes. They are “starting a brand new level of play, need to build a foundation” sized recruiting classes. But, for the first time in the DI era at St Thomas, the new group is fairly standard by college soccer standards: six freshman and one transfer.
So, with a mountain of “middle aged” players (sophomores and juniors) clogging up the rotation, which freshmen will have the chops to cut through the clutter and jump into the rotation immediately? With the amount of rotation and subbing McGill is known for, don’t be surprised if the answer is “plenty of them” – at least for quick bursts, minutes here and there, etc. In terms of someone who might just rocket like crazy right into fans’ hearts and minds, there is absolutely an early candidate: Sofia Englund.
We’ll try to keep the hype to a management level considering we haven’t seen St Thomas play even an exhibition match yet. But in training (both small activities and full sided scrimmages), Sofia Englund (“Lundy”) just pops. At least in terms of her potential and what she’s shown in short bursts, she seems to have at least the potential for the dribbling and technical ability of central midfielder Sofia Caballero (a big complement) and the quick burst and physical tools of a Mariah Nguyen (another big complement). She just goes AT defenders. Relentlessly.
Who knows if these early flashes by Englund translate to games AND if they are consistent over longer stretches of play. But if they are…holy shit be ready for a real breakout player in the Summit League. She might *really* carve up mediocre and unprepared defenses, in particular. And, if she’s coming off the bench, she could be the perfect player to take advantage of opposing players who have already spent their initial energy and are hoping to settle into a slower paced game.
How do they handle the expectations?
In one sense, there are still zero expectations for St Thomas. They are smack dab in the middle of 5 year probationary/transition period for NCAA teams that change levels. They are still fairly young. And the Summit League big dogs (South Dakota State, Denver, etc) won’t ever face them when it matters in knockout play because probation from the NCAA Tournament means you don’t even play in the “qualifying” conference tournaments.
On the other hand, they progressed nicely from year one to year two, at least one fairly respected analyst picked them to finish third in the Summit League, and – despite not being able to play in the postseason – they can still be the most epic spoiler of all time by refusing to lay down late in the year as other conference foes are desperately trying to solidify their tournament seeding.
The things we’ll be tracking will be: do they take advantage of good run of play by actually scoring AND do they perform in games *following* a win (vs letting themselves get too high). No matter what level you’re playing at, those can be markers of a mature team.
Who does the summit league get to replace WIU?
This isn’t necessarily a St Thomas-specific question but it IS one that we are endlessly curious about. After Western Illinois left the Summit League at the last minute this summer, there remains a void in the 9 team conference that is primed to be filled. So, who are the candidates to replace WIU?
First, I’ll say that the Midwest is far more drunk on Division I conferences than I realized before the Summit League and DI MNs became such a large part of Equal Time’s coverage. The Horizon League, Ohio Valley, Missouri Valley, the Summit League, Big Ten, MAC, etc all overlap the footprint we’re talking about here. Even the Big East has a presence in Omaha. It is wild out here! Which means there are many theoretical targets to consider.
But before we open this up to external candidates, it’s important to also remember that the Summit League already has several associate members who might serve as interesting “internal hires” in this search: Drake, EIU, Illinois State, Lindenwood U, Northern CO, and Southern Ill. Of those, Drake is almost definitely the cleanest fit from nearby Des Moines.
If we’re allowed to get a little ambitious, we wouldn’t hate the Summit League going hard after UW Milwaukee, a consistent top performer in a Horizon League that is otherwise (at least in terms of women’s soccer) not all that impressive these days. Per usual with these kinds of wild card topics, I will admit that I’m largely shooting from the hip. Maybe the Summit League stick to 9 full members. Maybe they jump straight to 12 by adding a slate of schools (and not just a single new member). Either way, let us know who you’d pitch to join St Thomas and all of our Summit League neighbors!
Sunday, August 6th
AT Waldorf (Forest City, Iowa)
Wednesday, August 9th
VS Viterbo (St Paul, MN)
Sunday, August 13th
Purple vs White Scrimmage (St Paul, MN)
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