Here are the nuts and bolts: Minnesota finished the spring 2021 season of 12 conference-only games in 8th place in the Big Ten with a record of 5 wins, 3 losses, and 3 ties. They cut their goals against average from 1.37 per game in 2019 to an impressive .83 per game but almost exactly matched their goals scored average of .58 per game. But more than anything, they showed a high level of competition and competitiveness with flashes of downright brilliance (below). Let’s dig in.
What went well
Without a doubt the most exciting take away was the Gopher’s defensive performance. They gave up 10 goals across all competitions (8 in the regular season) and 4 of the 10 were truly out-of-the-norm mistakes/accidents (both Michigan and Iowa goals) -- to say nothing of the regular kinds of “they probably could have got to it if given another chance” type goals allowed like against Rutgers. Needless to say, the defensive unit overall was just flat out fantastic.
Maddie Castro and I raved so much about the outside back triumvirate of Koker, Ward, and Dressely and even Delaney Stekr’s just outstanding breakout year at centerback, but we honestly need to do a little bit of an Athena Kuehn appreciation post for a sec. Kuehn did get rewarded with a Third Team All Big Ten but, honestly, it was probably too low. All the typical caveats about us not really watching a ton of the other teams, but she anchored the third best defense in the conference and she truly was the straw that stirred that drink.
The rest of her back line -- and the keepers -- generally played well. But her ability to cover ground when needed is what made more technical players like Stekr and Dressely so playable. Koker and Ward have stronger physical tools and can largely stick with anyone on the wing. But Dressely struggled at times against Wisconsin when they started targeting her and Stekr’s strengths are much more positioning, decision making, and aerial battles than tracking opponents down. They all had downright fantastic years in their own right, but Kuehn was a complete badass this year.
At times the press was on, as well. But only for short stretches against given opponents. The tweak to a 4-4-2 from a 4-3-3 wasn’t that dramatic. It seemed to tweak some responsibilities and in some ways simplify positioning decisions for the front six. Overall, it just takes the entire team and coaching staff all being on the same page and clicking for the press to work well. Even at their best, recent Gopher teams didn’t always get into a rhythm with it -- again, depending heavily on the opponent. Hopefully they can get it humming a bit more this fall, though, because it can create some high percentage chances on goal that this team could desperately use.
Where they struggled
Without a doubt the single biggest challenge for this year’s Gophers was scoring. Supposedly for much of the year the team was out producing their opponents in terms of expected goals (xG) based on data tracking. And the team certainly moved well past my absurdly common demand to just shoot the damn ball from outside -- they finished second in the conference in total shots. From game to game you could even see them go through phases like “not sure I should shoot” to “oh wait no I can shoot” to “now I’m shooting with a little more confidence”. They didn’t always quite get to the phase of “my head is up as I dribble and I’m finding teammates for some combination play” (see below where a shot was blocked by multiple bodies when there were two teammates ready to fire a shot with the ball on the move across the top of the box), though that did improve that last few games.
And while they did earn roughly 1 *crap load* of corner kicks, they didn’t really have the aerial threats to convert those into goals at a high clip. Theoretically the addition of Maddie Baker being able to suit up (more on her later) and Izzy Brown being eligible following her transfer, the front line will have even more weapons to bash the ball home by all means necessary.
Who was missing this year
With so many rotation players improving not only since last season but also game by game this year, it’s easy to forget that at least three possible players we may have expected to see suit up didn’t play a single minute. Lauren Roberts had a health complication and she’s now a student assistant coach (coaches had spoken about her as if she could play major minutes at the 6). Maddie Baker also had a health complication and wasn’t cleared to train again until the tail end of the season (could have had a big impact at the *very* least on set pieces with her height -- no, I will not get over it -- but also just in the final third in general). Paige Elliott, who broke out as a fantastic freshman contributor, wasn’t ever cleared to play due to not passing the fitness test.
Those three alone would have added one or two options at holding mid (Roberts and either Elliott or whoever Elliott replaced at centerback and pushed to holding mid) and a good addition into the attacking rotation. Baker should be able to come back ready to claim major minutes up top. The team is lucky to have Roberts on the coaching staff moving forward. And if Elliott can come back ready to rock and in shape we’re still pretty damn high on her potential as a centerback, a destroyer up top, or as a possible holding mid if she adds even more to her flashes of athleticism from her freshman year. It would be an especially critical bounce back because Kuehn is leaving a centerback spot open (one other option there discussed later one).
Obviously the biggest news in terms of transfers is Katie Duong being in the portal. Stanford is talking to her. At this point, everyone probably flows from how that situation shakes out. The whole application process and getting admitted to the college you are trying to attend (like we all did as less successful athletes) is part of the transfer process we don’t typically talk about -- in part because not every school is Stanford. But she’s smart as hell. She could very likely get in and end up a Cardinal. The U of M staff are still hopeful they can convince her to stay. For what it’s worth, if I got pulled in to make the pitch myself, it would be:
Ok...I started to drift into weird stuff toward the end. My bad. Good luck to Katie, either way but we would obviously love to have her back. Unlimited cooking shows. Just saying.
Because every player who participated this year gets an extra year of eligibility I guess we could call all the departing seniors outgoing transfers as well, kinda. All but Makenzie Langdok will be moving on, according to our sources. Kuehn is off to LSU. Nielsen is in the portal and should offer a pretty nice steal for a program looking for a year of quality keeper play if their keeper crop is too young/inexperienced to jump into starting. Unclear if Nummerdor or Del Moral play elsewhere or just call it a wrap.
Word is Ana Aguado is also transferring. She’ll have two years to play elsewhere if she uses all of her eligibility. Considering she’s been considered at least capable of starting almost from day one, it’s pretty wild we never got see her play. But keeper is brutal. Maddie and Meg Plaschko were both also solid options she happened to overlap with and only one can play at once.
Not a ton of intel on possible incoming transfers in part because, according to those who have seen the portal, there aren’t a ton of sure-thing contributors at the level Minnesota would be looking at. The challenge -- in my uneducated opinion -- is being able to gauge uneven film from a distance vs from up close. There were plenty of Gophers who had not-that-inspiring 2019 seasons individually who looked like absolute badasses this season. They had a year of individual development, sure, but also things just generally clicked enough overall that they individually also played much more confidently. But when you’re not seeing those players every day in training and only get to watch their good and not so good games on film it can make a scholarship offer almost truly a coin toss. Still, I’d guess at least a couple transfers get added by fall, if only because some could still pop up in the next few weeks/months and even more current players may decide that, with another year to spend elsewhere and settle in, the transferring decision happens to *just* tip into the yes column vs no.
Who you bring back
Ok. Guys. This season was great. But let’s get wild. Let’s fast forward from April to August and take advantage of the shortest wait between regular seasons of all time (one of the *only* silver linings to being Gopher soccer fans during a global pandemic.) It’s the start of camp. Players are reporting to campus. The question is: what “sure things” do the coaching staff have to work with before the pleasant surprises, “worked my ass off in the summer and am ready to contribute” returners, and impressive and ready to rock freshmen show up?
Well, let’s go to the chart (above). 15 players were above the Buisman Line (named for freshman McKenna Buisman when she played enough as a freshman to set the minimum standard for being a regular rotation player) this spring season. Of those, Kuehn, Nummerdor, Del Moral are graduating. Let’s be pessimistic and assume Duong is also gone.
At *worst* you have a capable starting keeper in Plaschko. A backline where, when healthy, you have three starting quality outside backs in Ward, Koker, Dressely and one starting quality centerback in Delaney Stekr. Some (hey broadcast partner Maddie Castro, I see you) like the idea of moving Patricia Ward back up to the wing where she can scare the crap out of outside backs rather than opposing wingers. I’d have no problem with that. You could even work formerly-hyped-in-this-space outside back Kez Inniss into the fray in that outside back rotation if she comes back ready to break out.
But if that, for some reason, isn’t an option, I say get weird with it. Rather than having a pacy ground coverer in Athena Kuehn operating from the middle, what if you played with pace on the outside in the form of Ward and Koker and with positioning savvy in the middle in the form of Stekr and now-turned-centerback Alana Dressely (gasp). Ok. I didn’t exactly *invent* the idea of putting good defenders in defending positions. But it’s worth a shot. Or, if Paige comes back ready to claim that spot, I actually think there’s a bit of an embarrassment of riches at outside back and you can put Ward wherever you want. She impressed like crazy at outside back and maybe after a year of defending she’d actually be bursting at the seams to attack. Who knows.
In midfield, word is that early enrollee Lauren Donovan has shown well as a holding mid in training (can I please offer you a four year starting spot, pleeeaaase?). Sophia Boman is a born and bread 8 who can destroy box to box (or as Assistant Coach Becky Maines astutely corrected upgraded to me once: “end line to end line”) for 90 minutes. Her growth, game to game, in terms of being willing, then able, then even more capable, then savvy and capable on the dribble from middle to final third was, frankly, almost disturbing. She looked so comfortable in the attack by the end that I could see her drifting even more forward if players around her are game to play more of the 6 and 8 roles. I personally also really liked Meg Gray at holding mid, as well, and would probably have just kept her there and let Duong stay at the 10 but I truly and honestly have never had to coach a team above U10 and mostly skate by while drinking whiskey with a mustache on social media most weeknights so my instincts aren’t *everything*.
Plus, she is maybe the most creative and fun Gopher in the final third so it didn’t exactly hurt to get her back on the front line attack once Duong moved to the 6. Gray will be there. Harper can eat up even more minutes if you need. Buisman should be even sharper after getting to actually play competitive games for the first time in [glances at watch] forever after her medical redshirt followed by global pandemic shutdown. Izzy Brown should come in ready to play 45-60 minutes at least. Baker should come in ready to play 30-45 minutes minimum. That could push Langdok over to the wing for most of her minutes, which we don’t hate. At her best she can help combine well there. Sorry, nearly all of the attacking assumptions we made the last few paragraphs assumes a return to the 4-3-3 at least in part because Brown and Baker seem like such natural central attackers. And because our nostalgia for the old Gopher press comes in the form of memories of that formation so it’s the only way we can dream anymore.
Finally, Thank You
Wild speculation about next fall aside, I cannot say enough about how much this spring season meant to me. This team is such a special group of badass women and being able to watch them bounce back from a tough 2019 *and* absurd/brutal/delayed 2020 made this spring such a fantastic way to break out of a long COVID quarantine work from home funk.
More than anything, having the chance to call the home games for BTN+ for the first time, and alongside Maddie Castro, was maybe the most fun I have ever had in my entire life. Despite knowing *of* Maddie and covering her for several seasons, she and I essentially had never spoken more than a few words to each other. Being able to learn my way through the broadcasting process with her made the process so much easier and our pregame-halftime-postgame chats game me so many insights into the program that I’ve never had before. She and I received so many supportive and positive messages from folks and that meant the world to us, especially as rookies. (I also received very useful and helpful tips from my mom, who was making sure I was doing my best).
Thanks to the Gopher Digital Productions staff for making it easy for us and giving us the opportunity, but really thanks to Maddie for making it work so well.
With the NWSL Challenge Cup and 2021 Season about to kick off on April 9th, Matt and Maya Hayes (former NWSL pro) talk to Chicago and Kansas City supporters about why Minnesotans should follow their teams. First up is Lauren Las and Christian Castro from Chicago Local 135 and then around 30 minutes Danielle Russell and Anna Fowler from KC Blue Crew start, with an unexpected crash by former Gopher coach and now KC NWSL coach Alli Lipsher around 40 minutes.
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.
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