The Gopher Soccer team has righted the ship with two wins over Purdue and Maryland after rough losses on the road to Penn State and Rutgers. They now sit in position to win the Big Ten West with a win against Wisconsin this Saturday -- a division that didn’t exist before this year, may not even exist now, but apparently does exist for the purposes of the Big Ten Tournament (more on that later).
Where Minnesota stands
As of now, Minnesota is tied for 5th place in the Big Ten with 17 points. But among western teams (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern, and one of the teams from Indiana…?), they are only two points behind Wisconsin. And, apparently, the wildcard weekend is not just broken into east-west regionals. It’s actually broken into 4 clusters (two from each region) -- tweet above -- and the top seed from each region gets a bye for the first round of wildcard weekend -- Wisconsin post-game video below, legitimately nice flex with the Lavelle jersey, btw -- to even out the 7 teams per region.
Then, the winners of each of the four clusters go to the Big Ten Tournament. But for all intents and purposes, the Big Ten Tournament includes all teams this year because whoever wins through the cluster goes through. Still, getting that top seed by winning against Wisconsin and skipping the “first round” would be pretty damn huge considering the anyone-can-win-against-anyone nature of the Big Ten.
What Wisconsin’s been up to
Wisconsin has essentially been doing what Minnesota’s been doing, but maybe -- on paper -- slightly better. Minnesota is 3rd in the Big Ten with only 9 goals allowed, but Wisconsin leads the conference by giving up only 6. Minnesota has struggled to score with only 6 goals scored on the season (13th in the B1G) while Wisconsin has scored 8 times (10th).
They beat Rutgers on a nice clean up goal (below), but they also lost to Purdue (who Minnesota beat) and to Indiana (who sits at 5-4, right behind MN in the standings). In other words, this game may come down to what most Big Ten games come down to: mentality, limiting mistakes, and converting on the set pieces and opportunities that do happen to come your way.
And, not to boil it down to goalkeepers, but Megan Plaschko currently owns an .827 save percentage and Jordyn Bloomer sits at .833. So, not saying it’s a #BorderBattleKeeperShowdown between two super stout defensive units but I’m also not *not* saying that.
Outdoor soccer is better
Not just because we get to be there as fans, reporters, and announcers but because Jeremy gets to be there to take fantastic photos! Check them out in the thread below.
We sit down with Gopher Soccer Head Coach Stefanie Golan to talk about her more nimble lineup this season, turning shots into true opportunities, coming back to Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium to finish the year, and the format for Big Ten Wildcard Weekend.
You can watch the show as a video embedded below or listen to it as a podcast on on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher.
That headline may seem like a mix between “duh” and “no kidding”, but for the Gophers scoring really has been the big weakness this season. Again, in a game where more goals wins you could argue that more scoring is *always* needed, but for Minnesota it’s not that there hasn’t been enough, it’s that there really hasn’t been almost any.
The walls have been barricaded
Remember, having something specific to critique also means there are areas that are already locked up. The team, as a whole, has been defensively stout. Penn State put up several goals against the Gophs, but they look downright fantastic as a team. Michigan got a couple goals but largely on fluky/bad luck giveaways. Otherwise Minnesota has kept the walls barricaded. And, even in the middle of the field, the Gophers have looked solid (though one lineup change there has had spill-over impacts on the attack -- more on that later).
But that’s in part because even when this team is down, the defense typically isn’t. Remember that the Big Ten Tournament Champs of 2018 gave up 26 goals and “worst in program history” by record 2019 squad also gave up...26 goals. They just happened to drop from 31 goals scored to 11.
Minnesota just needs more weapons
I don’t mean this to say more players who are natural goal scorers (though even the Rutgers broadcasters brought up how excited Head Coach Stef Golan is to see Izzy Brown suit up next fall). I mean more *ways to attack*. This year’s team has done the unthinkable. They have started taking so many outside shots that I [...gulp...] actually think they can dial it back. Yea. Me. I know.
Because the thing is, shots on their own aren’t guaranteed to lead to more goals. Yes, taking more shots from outside is supposed to create some chances on goal, force saves, and create chances for rebounds. But it’s also supposed to open up space in the box for *other* scoring chances by pulling the defense out to the perimeter (like 3 point shooting does in basketball.)
The Gophers have gone from fairly hesitant to shoot from outside, to shooting from outside but not always with enough intention to get mustard on the shot, to now actually taking shots with some zip on the ball. But now they need to take the next step, which is to turn those good scoring opportunities into great scoring opportunities.
Example 1: Sliding the ball across the box for the shot
One example of this (below) came against Rutgers during the solid comeback attempt. In this instance, the shot actually had some good power behind it. But, thanks to numbers in the attack and some lax positioning by Rutgers defenders, there were actually multiple players at the top of the box who could have been fed a nice pass on the ground to rip a shot first touch. It’s not that the player shooting would be any more or less accurate or have more or less power, it’s that teams have started loading up on defense behind the ball against Minnesota, knowing the offense has been a bit stagnant and they can block shots with regularity. But if you roll the ball across the box, the defense will rotate to accommodate and the shot can take place before they establish blocking position once again.
Example 2: Slipping the ball wide, opening up the give-and-go
Another example came on a great shot that ended up just wide of frame. It was dangerous in its own right. A good opportunity. But maybe slipping the ball wide to Duong(? hard to tell from my screen grab) and continuing the run into the box would have either freed the passer up for a give-and-go return pass where they could rip a shot with players rotating to cover (as mentioned above) OR allowed a near post shot attempt from Duong with players also on the move and maybe some defenders blocking the keeper from getting a good line of sight to make a good save.
3 game home stand
To this point, the Gophers have decided to rely on their defensive strengths (like, for instance, putting Duong at holding mid where she can be a strong field marshall stopping the point of attack -- which also pulls her farther away from the final third) in hopes that the offensive attack can either muster the one goal needed to break the 0-0 tie via a corner kick. Or that eventually a counter attack can release a high percentage chance on goal.
But if that defensive focus continues into the three game homestand at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium that kicks off Thursday afternoon, then a big more variety in the attack will be needed to claim victory in each of the entirely winnable slate of games on the calendar.
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