Despite there being virtually no soccer played in Minnesota currently, there are a lot of small stories I wanted to run through both to catch people up and to prepare for the fall college soccer season (should it be able to occur safely). Here are the Minnesota women’s soccer stories we’re watching in July.
Oh Captain, My Captain
There wasn’t much of a spring soccer season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t changes happening in the Gopher Soccer program. Every player and coach we’ve heard from has made it very clear that from the moment last season was over, every member of the team was ready to turn the page and start looking forward.
Part of that transition involved the players voting on a leadership council of six players (including Duong, Stekr, Dressely) who could offer a representative voice. That larger group and the set of three captains (Athena Kuehn, Makenzie Langdok, and Celina Nummerdor) was described in an announcement earlier this month. Now, to the captains.
Kuehn has objectively had the most on field success, moving from a solid rotation player as a freshman, then surprise stud at centerback as a sophomore, then sort of all over the field last year as the team scrambled to find a winning lineup. But Langdok and Nummerdor have also been in the rotation from day one in Minnesota. Langdok frequently serves as the steadying force in the front line alongside teammates that may have higher ceilings in the attack but also lower floors. And Nummerdor plays with a quiet swagger (see her infamous shoulder shake) and, at times last year, improved physicality. With Katie Duong best suited to be an attacking central midfielder, it may be on a veteran like Nummerdor to slot a bit farther back in a more defensive role even if her touch and passing could make her a dangerous component in the final third.
More than anything, these three have seen it all. They’ve been young players getting spot minutes behind stud upperclassmen on a stacked team in 2017. They’ve been starters on the 2018 team that was somewhat up and down but ultimately won the Big Ten Championship and advanced in the national tournament. And they’ve been veterans on the 2019 Gopher Soccer team that, through some bad luck and some lack of cohesiveness, had the worst record in the history of the program. I personally like them, especially as a group. They will be a steadying force in what will hopefully be a bounce back season for Minnesota.
It’s too early, we don’t know enough about the new freshmen, we didn’t really get to see anyone play this spring and I honestly still don’t care. I’m starting the lineup predictions now because I’m bored and who doesn’t need a little wild speculation in their life?! Ok, considering I’m essentially just listing existing rotation players, this isn’t really a bold lineup prediction. It’s more like a reminder of what our basic assumptions would tell us about the Gopher’s starting lineup/rotation this fall.
First, other than the seniors who graduated, the players that have left the team include Brittany Bentheimer (transferred to Northern Iowa), Linnea Yacovella (at the U but no longer playing soccer), Emily Bunnell (transferred to Seattle U), and Manthy Brady (no longer playing college soccer). We learn about these situations almost entirely second hand, so if any of those descriptions are inaccurate please tell us so we can correct them. And, obviously we know almost nothing about how the new freshmen will adjust and build chemistry with the existing team.
But, other than those notes and heavy caveats, here is the “if the Gophers had a game tomorrow, who do we think would start” lineup.
Maddie Nielsen has been solid in goal and, with another year of progression, should be expected to hold the keeper spot unless pushed out by a big jump from Aguado or Plaschko.
On the back line, Dressely showed up in a big way last year and should walk in ready to lock down the leftback spot once again. Head Coach Stefanie Golan has said that even after both players had impacts elsewhere, Paige Elliott and Athena Kuehn will be centerbacks this season -- where they looked great in stretches as a pair last year. In a team with so many unknowns in the rotation, this seems like the right call. If you can solidify the back line, it lets you build from the back know your defense should at least keep you in games. But that still leaves the right back spot as almost truly wide open. We have a soft spot for Katie Koker’s hustle and we’ve heard that Keziah Inniss had a strong spring before the shutdown so we’ll assume they have the edge walking into camp.
In the midfield, the two surest things will be that Katie Duong starts as the 10 and Nummerdor starts/plays major minutes somewhere. We mentioned above that, somewhat out of necessity, Nummerdor may need to play as a holding/defensive mid because there aren’t any lock down, sure thing starters there that we’ve seen on the field (though Lauren Roberts always draws praise from the staff and she played some minutes there as a freshman). For now we’ll assume Ari Del Moral comes back from her ACL tear and gets penciled into the rotation. At the *very* least, she knows the system and should provide some stable presence as younger teammates look to grow in their roles around her.
And, a quick reminder, that for all the talk about starters in the midfield, and the front six more broadly, it’s really more like 10-12 players getting solid minutes than 6 full time starters. Only the absolute best players have the focus and fitness to play in the front 6 for the full match as the team is forced to play two games a week. Duong might flirt with that level of playing time this year just because of the crucial position she plays. But even for the best players it’s not uncommon for playing time to sit closer to 60-70 minutes a game, freeing up a lot of chances for players to fight their way into the rotation.
Up front, it's just as wide open. Langdok will likely start and/or see major minutes because of her experience and her ability to work into nifty finishing positions in the box. We’ll go full wildcard and pencil in incoming forward Maddie Baker because if she can provide some presence in the box as a big target, it would something we haven't really seen recently. Kenna Buisman is back after a redshirt injury recovery year and coaches raved about her leadership in her rehab and in leading practices with the players who didn’t travel during road trips. Patricia Ward is also recovering from an ACL tear but she’s said she feels confident so she’ll come in ready to claim a spot on the wing. We like Megan Gray’s game a lot. She has the instincts/feel to fill in basically anywhere, but at times her lack of top end sprint speed means the team doesn’t want to put her in the midfield or backline -- where losing a mark can lead directly to a chance for the other team. That usually means she plays in the wing, where her combination play and savvy tend to pay the most dividends anyway.
Keep in mind, this lineup is almost certainly too conservative. It basically assumes no changes in the “hierarchy” in any of the position groups. Based on the overall culture of work and effort that’s been there these past 9 months, there will be players who saw little to no minutes last year that come in and claim a spot (Eva Bruer, Sadie Harper, Lauren Roberts, etc) and somewhere along the line there will be injuries that open up spots for veterans like Delaney Stekr or one of the keepers, even if it’s short term. Some of the freshmen will undoubtedly be pleasant surprises. In short: after last year, not a single spot in this lineup is guaranteed. And I cannot wait to see who steps up.
St Thomas Now *Officially* Going DI
I’ve talked to dozens of players, coaches, and parents about St Thomas’ becoming a DI program and playing in the Summit League, and I still honestly think people are underrating the impact it will have overall. It's not that they’ll steal tons of recruits from the U or immediately dominate the Summit League. But I do think the impact will ripple out more than people realize.
Of the dozens of players I’ve interviewed at the DI level over the last few years, they usually fall into a few buckets:
I personally think St Thomas will capture a larger share of the third bucket than people assuming. Firstly, because it’s close to home for many of the upper middle class players from the second/third ring suburbs who are typically in this broader recruiting pool, but not too close or too small to feel like high school. Second, because it’s cosmetically an attractive campus and it's already a place where many of their friends are going. And third, because up until now, the DI “border” schools in the Dakotas and Iowa really have captured these players almost by default.
(*St Thomas also seems to be a well run program that has been actually good at soccer, but we’ll get into that more once we’ve had a chance to dig deeper into the program.)
In short: I think St Thomas walks into the Summit League with a good advantage in general in recruiting thanks to location and to its general match with the personality and makeup of large portions of the suburban recruiting pool.
Secondarily, having a chance to showcase your team for metro area recruits will also, honestly, be some help for *other* Summit League programs as the come play away games in St Paul. Now, as they work to get recruits on campus (the crown jewel of both academic and athletic recruiting), they have a convenient middle step where they can invite players to come watch the team while they’re in town to play St Thomas.
Ok. Clearly I’m getting too many layers down into my speculation. But this is going to be fun. We’ll be doing more coverage of St Thomas’ transition to DI in the coming weeks/months so keep an eye out.
NWSL Challenge Cup & Expansion
The games have been fantastic. The initial knockout games specifically, even though they were low scoring, led to dramatic penalty kick shootouts. A bunch of current and former Gopher players helped us breakdown all 8 teams and you can watch/listen to that show still (embedded below), even though it took place before this last bunch of games.
More than anything, what I’ve walked away thinking about are all the younger players that have been given a real shot at playing time after years of working their way through the ranks. They stick out not only because it’s a good story, but also because the possible pro prospects that have come out of Minnesota recently have generally not taken that path. The players we're familiar with who are willing to take a chance on the pro game have -- understandably -- tended to go overseas where at least they are getting real minutes immediately. But seeing so many back of the roster players get a chance under such a national spotlight has certainly made me hope for some to eventually take the road less traveled, as well.
On a related note, with NWSL expansion getting announced in LA for the 2020 year, I’ll re-up the piece we did a few months back about what expansion could look like in Minnesota. That piece was largely focused on what an MLS/NWSL co-owned team would look like, while LA provides a more independent model. But either way, I think the piece of expansion that doesn’t get quite enough attention is that expanding the league wide footprint overall -- not just adding individual markets of fans -- can really have an impact greater than the sum of its parts. A truly national league will be more appealing to sponsors, will draw greater investment through the broadcast deals, and will create a more holistic ecosystem where more players *do* choose to tough it out with little to no playing time because the pay, recognition, and stage are improved *just enough* to tip the scales in the NWSL's favor.
U20 World Cup
If, somehow, the rest of the world is willing to interact with Americans by winter, the U20 World Cup that was originally scheduled to take place roughly now (July/Aug 2020) would be kicking off in late January 2021. This is important for Minnesota fans because after several call ups to the youth yanks, Katie Duong solidified her spot in the US rotation and helped win the U20 CONCACAF Championship for the red, white, and blue earlier this year.
Her previous appearances saw her play as far back as a deep holding midfielder positioned between the centerbacks, but by the time the qualifying tournament was in full swing -- and Laura Harvey had taken over as Head Coach -- Duong was comfortably situated where she’s most dangerous: as an attacking central midfielder. Based purely on her performance in that tournament, it would be hard to imagine Harvey leaving Duong behind if the World Cup eventually does take place.
For Gopher fans, easily the most encouraging sign -- other than a Minnesota player competing alongside the best players in the country, obviously -- had to be Duong’s willingness to play with even more of a f-you attitude in the final third. She was taking chances from distance (see below), was relied upon as the regular corner kick taker, and just generally looked confident floating between that creator and attacker mentality. Promising signs for this coming fall season and also for her development long term.
For this massive chat, we pulled in 6 current and former Minnesota Soccer stars (Rashida Beal, Patricia Ward, Maddie Nielsen, Athena Kuehn, Katie Koker, Katie Duong) to help us preview the knockout rounds of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Then, in the second half, we check in with each player to see how their training and preparation for the fall season has gone under COVID quarantine.
You can watch the full video below or listen to it as a podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher.
We sat down with returning Gopher Soccer veterans Patricia and Ari to learn about recovering from ACL tears during COVID, how so much time rehabbing may impact their game both physically and mentally, and their individual goals for this fall.
You can watch the full video below or listen to it as a podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher.
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