Author: Mark Privratsky
It's January 9th and I'm on the way to a sports dome in Vadnais Heights. We hadn't even seen the MN Aurora brand yet! The Minnesota Women's Soccer Team (as they were then called) was holding its first ever player tryout, and the team was happy to let me observe. Having never attended an open tryout like this, I had no idea if a player would be able to showcase themselves in the format, or if the team would find actual talent for their squad. Reminder, this was at 8am in January! About 40 players attend the tryout, a few Tommies, plenty of local D3 and D2 players, a few high school aged girls and a handful who were post college career.
Insta DM spreads the word
Is it worth holding "open" tryouts like this in the middle of January? Will the right players even hear about it? Sometimes all it takes is a message on Insta. Kristelle Yewah was years removed from a standout career at Michigan State. Now enrolled in Dental School at the University of Minnesota, she is all in on her career path, and simply playing in a rec soccer league when time allows. She gets a message on Insta from her friend Abby Enrichi, a former Augsburg soccer player, about the MN WoSo tryout. "You have to try out." Kristelle hasn't heard of the team or the league, but she knows she misses getting to play in a real soccer environment. Kristelle signs up for the tryout on January 9, and Abby Enrichi etches her name in Aurora FC fan lore forever.
The coaches break the players into groups to play 5 v 2, players are shaking off rust. The keepers work on the side, taking shots on each other (this was surprisingly intense for some reason!). Now the coaches break the players into small sided teams and rotate them through games. It's a bit easier to spot the standouts at this point, because in a chaotic process with players who don't know each other, the best players will still look in control. The coaches end the tryout with full field scrimmaging. At this point I feel like it's obvious who stands out. She played in the midfield and simply looked intentional in her game. She made her passes and facilitated her teammates around her. I said to my brother after the tryout (had to provide the receipt), if I could guess one player they'd sign, it'd be Kristelle Yewah.
Making a first impression
When asked what she saw in Kristelle at that first tryout, Aurora Head Coach Nicole Lukic put it like this, "...her athletic ability, she can hold the ball really well, she has good technical skills. Every time she gets the ball she has a natural drive to want to go forward and just take space and keep the ball. That really stood out at the tryout because there just wasn't anybody else like that." Also putting into context that this was January and Kristelle isn't playing soccer at the moment, "obviously she's not in a season right now, she's not even in her top shape, so then you start thinking oh my goodness if we can get this girl back into her D1 shape, she's going to be a threat for sure."
Lukic spoke to the value of having both veteran players who may not aspire to the NWSL or Europe, and also young players who are seeking that path who benefit from leadership in players like Kristelle. "She's very mature and knows where she's going in life. She's going to be a good role model for younger players on the team for sure." On the field, Lukic could see Kristelle playing as a 2nd forward/false 9 role, as an attacking mid or as a winger if need be. She's not just here to mentor, it feels like she can be a big player on the field as well.
Kristelle Yewah was announced as the 2nd ever MN Aurora FC signing after Sarah Fuller signed the day before. To me it was a signal of intent by the team. A Big Ten Captain who played 4 years at Michigan State, and also someone who is driven to succeed outside of soccer. Aurora can give much of the credit to the Yewah signing to the University of Minnesota (and Abbi Enrichi), as it was the Dental program that drew Kristelle here to begin with -- she's in medical scrubs in her signing announcement! We've seen subsequent signings match what you see in Kristelle, high achieving people who ALSO happen of course, to be great soccer players. Because make no mistake, she also wins.
At Okemos High School near East Lansing in Michigan, Kristelle was a State Champion, 4 year Varsity player, 2 time All State, including a 20 goal senior year where she was named State Journal Player of the Year. Even though she grew up a Michigan fan, recruiting landed her in her backyard at Michigan State. There, a close connection with the local Okemos high school as teammates of hers also went to MSU. Over the 4 years she grew into a leader and Captain at Michigan State as well, appearing in 60 games for the Spartans, including one win over Michigan (that gave us the great pic at the top of the piece).
Aside from wrapping up Dental school at the U of M, Kristelle has found creative ways to use her gifts. In the most Michigan move of all time, she took her degree in Kinesiology to a fellowship at Lear Corporation, where she did testing on how car seats affected comfort and safety of passengers. This fellowship was through Challenge Detroit, which cultivates diverse, innovative, community-minded leaders from the city and across the country, fostering their talents to support local initiatives that move Detroit forward. Fellows spend 4 days in traditional work settings and the 5th day fellows focus on social impact community projects.
By the time Kristelle laces up her cleats at TCO Stadium in from of thousands of fans, we hope her Dental school work is on pause for the summer. She'll be joined by a handful other players from that first open tryout on January 8, by teammates from Big Ten rivals, and from players from around the country. Even though it's been a few years since she bossed the field at Michigan State, I wouldn't be surprised to see her stand out once again. It's what she does.
As fans, the spring season can feel like a bit of a tease – a taste of cheering on our favorite college programs but also a reminder that we have to wait 5 more months for the next NCAA soccer season to come around. For those inside the Gopher Soccer program, however, this is the first time in years they’ve even been able to have a traditional spring season. In 2020, the spring season was cut short by the initial COVID shutdown. Then, Big Ten teams pushed their fall 2020 season into spring 2021 and, Minnesota specifically then had a coaching change that made even the summer of 2021 feel extra chaotic. So let’s get back to basic and refresh a bit on what the spring season is really about.
Broad benefits of the spring soccer season
After the fall season ends, the time you’re able to train is understandably reduced as players enter their offseason. Then available training time is expanded to allow the team to practice together. And while the most visible part of this process for fans are the few exhibition matches the team may play, the day in-day out reps at training are really the protein of the spring season.
Because the fall season involves two games a week, road trips across the entire country, and as much recovery time as true training time, maybe the simplest benefit of the spring season is the ability to practice and train at all.
“You really dont get a huge opportunity to train your group on different things [in the fall,” Head Coach Erin Chastain explains. “You’re really just playing games and recovering. What’s nice about the winter and nice about the spring is just training our group.”
Digging a little deeper
Having players on the training pitch consistently then gives coaches (and players) the chance to dig a little deeper and start noticing which players naturally combine with each other, how they’re complementing each other, who’s fitting in a new role, etc.
On our recent show with Sota Soccer, Assistant Coach Maya Hayes said players don’t necessarily spend a ton of energy worrying about cementing their role or cracking the fall rotation during spring – it just isn’t really their mindset, even for the younger players. But on the flip side, the older players do need to start thinking about the fall. More specifically “for those more veteran players their big thing is ‘what legacy do they want to leave’?” Hayes said.
This might be an absurd thing to write about a team that ultimately finished outside the conference tournament field in the Big Ten, but last year’s Gopher Soccer team at times showed as high of a ceiling as any U of M team I’ve covered. They obviously fell well below the Big Ten Championship/NCAA Tournament win type finishes that other squads have achieved the last half decade, but when they were *on*, they were special. And with a full offseason together for the first time in years (and only really two players gone from last year’s squad), this fall’s veterans should be setting a high bar for themselves to lead this team in a way that helps the squad get close to that ceiling much more consistently.
What to watch for
As mentioned above, only two major players (Kenz Langdok, Patricia Ward) from last year’s rotation have moved on. That means that even as Chastain and the staff look to broaden the rotation a bit, there aren’t exactly too many glaring holes in the starting lineup. With Langdok departing the right back spot, at least one backline position is up in the air. And since Elizabeth Overberg was (admirably, capably) filling in as a centerback for injured Alana Dressely, you could see multiple positions shift on the backline. Can Dressely come back and start in the middle next to Delaney Stekr? That seems to be the hope. Could Overberg maybe take her talents to outside back since Lauren Donovan seems like a 90 minute beast at holding mid for now? Possibly. Abi Frandsen has shown some serious chops at outside back, so whether at left or right she is a known quantity. The other outside back spot might be the most truly open spot on the roster.
Hanging in the balance is how the group melds together overall and how far the coaching staff drifts into new formations or tactics. Even if the tactics stay largely the same but the formation shifts a bit from the 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 and even just a *little* more of a high line press, does that mean the top line rotates a bit more? If the teams sticks to their 4-4-2 but more players show some nice grit and/or combination at outside mid does that push the staff to move off the 80, 90, 100 minute games we sometimes saw from Kenna Buisman and Meg Gray (partly out of necessity, partly because they have the fitness to handle it if needed) and broaden that outside mid rotation a bit?
Spring games aren’t exactly meant to represent a direct preview of what teams will do months later during the official NCAA season, but for individual players and how those players combine with those around them, it can be a bit of a preview for what’s at least possible. So when spring games start in April, we’ll be watching to see who jumps out. Because it just might be the first sign of who’s ready to grow their role next fall.
Road trip possibilities
If you happen to want to take a drive and watch some Gopher Soccer on the road this spring, you also might have the chance to catch some NWSL games while you’re at it. By coincidence, both of the Gophers’ road trips overlap with nearby Challenge Cup matches for the Kansas City Current.
Hannah Cade was all everything growing up in Minnesota, a four year starter at Iowa State, and is starting her second stint in the pro leagues in Iceland. Matt sits down with her to talk about playing in Europe vs the US, adapting to living abroad, her goals as a pro, being a soccer sister, and more!
You can watch the recorded LIVE version of the video show below or you can listen to it as a podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher. Show presented by Pentz Homes (pentzhomes.com)
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