During COVID, time itself has at times seemed to fold onto itself. Not only did the fall season get delayed to this spring, but *last* spring’s season really only existed for a few weeks of training and no exhibitions. That means, as we begin 2021, it’s been well over a year since we’ve seen the University of Minnesota soccer team on the field. So with bizarro regular season soccer campaign about to kick off while we’re chopping ice off our sidewalks, let’s look at 5 questions that will shape the next few months of Gopher Soccer.
1) Wait, when is the season happening again?
When the NCAA announced that the fall season was officially postponed, it also announced the basics of the spring season calendar. Regular season games could begin on February 3rd, should be completed April 17th so selection for a reduced, 48 team national tournament could take place on April 18th and culminate with a mid May College Cup.
The word so far is the Gophers are theoretically meant to open play on February 19th, likely with no non-conference matchups or even exhibitions. Players have now reported back to campus and are now officially preparing for the spring season.
UPDATE 1/25/20: The schedule is now officially out! The release mentions that no general public fans will be allowed at games, only immediate family (smart decision by the Big Ten). It also mentions a "wild card weekend" on April 11th that frankly may end up being a "make up games that were postponed weekend" because, for instance, the entire University of Michigan Athletics Department is currently shut down after a few athletes were found to have the new strain of COVID. As we all should have expected, this spring may be a bit strange so don't carve these dates in stone just yet.
2) What can the Gophers get from their freshmen class?
The Gophers had more than a dozen freshmen and transfers join the team before last season. While a few showed major flashes (Katie Duong, Paige Elliot, Manthy Brady - who is no longer with the program,) and some grit and hustle (Sadie Harper, Katie Koker), it was still a pretty tough campaign to kick off their University of Minnesota careers. If anything, the 2020 class is standing on even stranger ground.
Not only has the team not played an official game in over a year. But due to injuries, general roster movement, and health and safety protocols, the Gophers haven’t even played a full sided *scrimmage* internally. So the extra training time before playing their first college game has come with some hang-ups as well. Word is Sophia Boman and Abbi Frandsen have been balling out. Maddie Baker should provide a mix of shear size and ability up front that will be unique. We’ll see who else might be able to get into a rotation that is, frankly, maybe as wide open as we’ve seen in our era covering the team.
3) Who could end up starting/in the rotation?
Seeing as we haven’t seen the team play in over a year, I’m going to assume I have essentially no shot at accurately guessing the starting lineup and the rest of the rotation. So with that in mind, here is my projected starting lineup and likely rotation players, anyway!
At goalkeeper, it’s fairly safe to assume Maddie Nielsen keeps the starting spot. Yes. She did lose her crown as “most likely to be asked about basketball” to fellow Maddie (Baker) but it’s hard to imagine her surrendering the starting keeper spot. She had a couple mistakes last year and has continued working to improve her distribution skills, but on a team that only scored ten goals all of last season, goalkeeping was far from the problem. Let’s see if she can use her experience help organize a backline that may have a couple new starters.
While Athena Kuehn and Alana Dressely are as close to sure thing starters as anyone, it remains to be seen who plays next to them. Delany Stekr has been busting her butt and impressing staff so maybe she claims a centerback spot and pushes Paige Elliot to holding midfield in the Gophers classic 4-3-3? And with Dressely providing composure and consistency on the left after a breakout year last season, maybe more of a bomber plays on the right like Katie Koker? Keziah Inness had really impressed early last spring but Abbi Frandsen could also claim the spot due to general savviness and, as a natural winger, the Gophers essentially deciding that Dressely can be more focused on defense (which, due to Dressely’s consistency, I’d probably be in favor of). So let’s say from left to right Dressely, Stekr, Kuehn, Frandsen.
This would assume that Elliot pushes up a bit into a holding role in the midfield to complement Katie Duong and Sophia Boman who, by all accounts, have been absolutely shredding it in training. Boman offers a more physical, box to box presence (staff have went so far as to say “she’s not just box to box, she’s end line to end line” in effusive praise -- uh, can I pre-order my Boman jersey, please?!). That could free Duong to play a true attacking 10 role as she did with the U20s as they won the CONCACAF Championship last spring. If Elliott has been putting in work and comes in ready to go, she could be a beast at the 6. Tall, strong frame to go with a good feel for the game. Stekr doesn’t quite have the agility to cover ground as a midfielder but if she comes in in better shape than Elliott you could also see these two swap. Celina Nummerdor obviously has played major minutes in the midfield before and, to a lesser degree, Arianna Del Moral. They’ll see time somewhere in the midfield -- and Nummerdor could even/may likely start -- as known quantities. Though I’ve always dreamed of Nummerdor as a bit of a false nine that finds position, and does quick decision making of either pass, shoot, dribble right as she gets the ball and keeps the defense guessing.
Up top, you’d have to expect Makenzie Langdok starts in the middle as a steadying, experienced presence. Word is she’s been working her ass off and it would be awesome if she also brings some vocal leadership for a group that frankly doesn’t have a ton of it. There are plenty of leaders in their own way in this crew, but not many who will both walk the walk and talk the talk. You could see Patricia Ward and Kenna Buisman start on the right and left wings, respectively, following their recoveries from ACL tears. It has felt like ten years since we got to see Buisman out there after her medical redshirt last season and if all the work we’ve heard about has paid off, she should put down an career-long ownership claim on that left wing and live a nice comfortable life as a big, fast killer who wears right backs down game after game. Megan Gray will see some time on the wing as a do-it-all, jack of all trades but maybe also in the midfield (she’s almost hampered by being so capable at so many spots). We’d love to see Katie Koker embrace her role as captain of the chaos crew alongside Sadie Harper. Remember watching Harper and Koker get down into their defensive stance like a couple of point guards picking up their mark at full court? Those two coming in on opposite wings alongside Maddie Baker as the all hustle, full court press bench squad would make all of our dreams come true. Maybe Meg Gray is the savvy small forward in this situation? Buisman as the power forward? SORRY. Got caught day dreaming of *actually* watching the team again.
4) With so many spots up for grabs, what will separate these players?
All the projections discussed above need to be taken not only with the typically large grain of salt, but with additional variability due to such a long layoff from seeing these players on the field. Then, on top of that, add the fact that each of these women has no doubt been dealing with challenges related to COVID and what it’s done to their families, friends, and teammates (to say nothing about -- gestures wildly -- everything else happening in the world).
The long layoff will, in and of itself, reveal something about the players’ individual makeup. Which players self motivate or more easily motivate and used this ridiculous last 12 months of training time as an opportunity? Which players typically rely on games as ongoing markers for progress and weren’t able to say locked in? Which players maybe had the best of all intentions but had real life challenges that presented hurdles to progressing -- or even maintaining -- their level of play?
And aside from all of that, where are players’ mentally after last year’s brutal season? After the Gophers finished what ended up being their worst season on record, we started to hear more about internal drama within the team. Nothing crazy. Older players thinking they’d earned more minutes based on effort and longevity being upset when more talented players were seeing more playing time. Some veteran players attempting to grow in their leadership by being more vocal but in doing so maybe talking the talk a bit without fully walking the walk.
Those anecdotes only sound even remotely spicy to me or other Gopher fans because the team is filled with such ridiculously nice people. When a senior class filled with high achievers left after 2018, it left a vacuum that had to be filled. It’s not crazy that some players felt they were meant to fill that space slightly more than others or in different ways. The truth is, I think the players who will separate themselves and show best on the field will be the ones who remember that Minnesota has always essentially been a system team. In our time seriously covering the team, very few players were built to do their own thing one on one and were truly able to make an impact that way. Even the best players still did the pre-work, played with a ton of effort in the games, and excelled by maximizing their role in the system. That fanciest stuff you saw April Bockin pull, for example, was still based on a turnover from a great team press built on the movement, spacing, and communication of the entire squad.
The point being, the way back to .500 soccer (and hopefully better) for Minnesota is not having a few players try to be player of the week, it’s focusing on doing the absolute best job of playing your role in the system. Though I *will* donate $5 to charity for every shot on frame taken from outside the 18 yard box. This is not a joke (until it reaches dangerous territory, financially. Then it was obviously always meant as a joke).
In the end, this season is going to be complete insanity. But I’m still so excited to see the exact *kind* of insanity ends up being. Buisman, Del Moral, and Ward are coming back from ACL tears. A bunch of freshmen are clawing to get out there for the first time. Seniors are ready to finish off their career strong (or not finish it -- heavy caveat explained in the next section). Games are gonna have to be played in domes because IT IS WINTER OUT THERE, YOU GUYS. Can’t wait.
5) How are players going to use their extra eligibility?
If it’s too early to predict the starting lineup for this season, it’s certainly too early to guess what players do after the season. But who cares. We need ways to keep ourselves busy as fans these days. A reminder that every single player on this, and every, team gets an extra year of eligibility because this season (both last fall and this spring) essentially doesn’t count toward the standard four years of NCAA eligibility. That means some of the current players could choose to stick around and be super seniors and get their masters degrees. Some players may take their talents elsewhere. Some obviously may just choose to graduate in four years and move on to non-soccer endeavors.
The early word is that Langdok and Nielsen may stick around for fall 2021. Athena Kuehn has already said she’s heading to LSU for her bonus season. But I’m just as curious about which players from other programs use the opportunity of an extra year to transfer *to* the U.
Izzy Brown is a major get as a young striker who will have three years remaining. Like Katie Koker before her, Brown transferred to the U after originally being recruited by Golan as a high schooler but choosing another program (Brown at UNC, Koker at Marquette) before eventually coming around. We don’t track the near misses of the Gophers recruiting efforts in any real way, but that pool of players seems to be the low hanging fruit mostly likely to circle back to Minnesota.
Completely unrelated: If anyone has a username and password for the NCAA transfer portal that lists every eligible transfer target they want to share with me, I will graciously accept it and speculate wildly.
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