For all the excitement of watching the US win the world cup over in France and the fun of following local WPSL teams over the summer, there’s something special about Minnesota’s top women’s soccer program getting back on the field. As Equal Time Soccer begins its second full season of covering the Gophers (and my third season, personally), it’s easy to use a cliche about “it being the craziest season yet.” But I promise you, this may truly be the craziest season of Gopher soccer you’ve seen in a while. So, with training camp kicking off this week (players report Monday, we’ll have a live report from their first training on Tuesday), we’re here to answer the four biggest questions facing Minnesota this season.
Who starts on the backline?
First, some quick hitting facts to set the stage. NCAA rules allow pretty liberal substitutions but Head Coach Stefanie Golan typically doesn’t like to do much subbing on the back line. Two transfers are coming in as theoretically ready-made starters (Cachet Lue started for years at TCU, Katie Koker played real minutes as a freshman at Marquette). Athena Kuehn shifted to center back as a sophomore after an impressive showing as a defensive mid in 2017 and immediately showed some serious chops on the backline. Nikki Albrecht has All Big Ten potential but will be coming back from an injury during the spring season. And Marisa Windingstad showed she has the athleticism to hang with opposing wingers at the Big Ten level - plus, coaches rave about her passing completion percentage.
For those doing the math, that’s five players for what has traditionally been a four person back line. Will Golan use a bit of a rotation at outside back? If healthy, Albrecht should essentially have her spot locked in at left back. So it may come down to Koker and Windingstad battling on the right side. Though, to be fair, others could fight for minutes back there as well, either because they’re a savvy presence on the field that can help settle things down (Megan Gray) or because they show really well in camp (Alana “Micky” Dressely or one of the freshmen). Expect some rotation during the exhibition games, but by the time Big Ten play rolls around, it’s more likely to be settled.
Who will see major minutes in the front six?
Unlike the backline, there is typically a fair amount of rotation in the midfield and forward lines of the Gophers’ 4-3-3. To that end, we’ll avoid placing too much attention on “who starts” in favor of a more fair but fictional standard we created based on last year’s field time: the Buisman Line. Named for McKenna Buisman, the big/strong/fast attacker who averaged just under 30 minutes per game, the Buisman Line refers to the threshold at which someone is playing enough to be reasonably considered a significant part of the rotation.
Last year, 16 players surpassed the Buisman Line. One was keeper Maddie Nielsen. Five were defenders (Delaney Stekr held down a spot until Emily Peterson returned from her ACL injury). That means ten players saw major minutes in the front six. Of those ten, five either graduated (Castro, Heslin, Fiedler, Bockin) or are likely out for the year with injury (Buisman, unfortunately). Who claims that giant pile of minutes alongside the five returning Buisman Line qualifiers (Ward, Gray, Langdok, McKendrick, Nummerdor)? Based on way-too-early intel and several attempts at reading way too far between the lines of Coach Golan’s quotes in the roster announcement (only half joking...), Katie Duong, Paige Elliot, Manthy Brady, and Linnea Yacovella could all claim some of those minutes as true freshman. Emily Bunnell could also get some as a solid all around midfielder who transferred in from Baylor.
The positions to watch, if they end up in their familiar 4-3-3, are holding center midfielder and center forward. Being the holding mid in the center of the field can be brutally tough. You need to be gritty enough to go at opponents like a middle linebacker but technical enough to change the point of attack on a dime like a point guard. She’s a little light on grit, but TJ McKendrick could claim that spot at the “6” due to her experience and passing ability with someone like Bunnell or freshman Lauren Roberts battling for minutes there on a spot basis. The lack of an experienced, gritty 6 might also mean asking two of those three center midfielders to hold a bit more rather than relying on a single destroyer to patrol the middle of the field.
At center forward, you could see Makenzie Langdok as the consistent, “won’t give away the ball in a dangerous spot” option. We’ve liked Arianna Del Moral and Celina Nummerdor as sort of “false 9” options that are a bit of a hybrid between attacking midfielder and forward. Haley Hartkemeyer really impressed the staff throughout the spring season with her willingness to go at defenders and head toward goal, so keep an eye on her. And, as with the rest of the front six, don’t be surprised if this is all wrong after a freshman absolutely kills it for four days in a row at training and announces to the world that the center forward spot is hers for the next four years somehow.
Who responds well to the added pressure?
Speaking of freshmen blowing up the spot: let’s take a step back and talk about the team at a macro level for a second. Last year and the year before, the team had about 23 players. There were position battles. Surely there was some amount of internal team drama and pressure. But everyone still traveled on every road trip. There were only two keepers (now there are four), so no one ever felt too far away from getting their chance on the field.
This year, with ten freshmen and three transfers, the roster is up to 29. So, first things first, not everyone is going to travel. When you have 23 players, leaving folks behind would mean telling one or two players that they are not good enough. When you have 29 players? It’s a much easier conversation because it’s seven/eight/nine girls staying back together.
More broadly, how are returners going to respond when they see a few freshmen out-battling them for minutes? How are freshmen going to respond when they realize they’ll need a season to acclimate to the speed of Big Ten soccer before truly competing for minutes? These questions aren’t really anything new. But with so many more players battling for those same 16 spots above the Buisman Line, the intensity of those questions will be a little higher. Who will use that extra degree of pressure as motivation? It’s going to be exciting to follow.
Who is this team’s top scorer?
To the question of excitement, let’s take a minute to talk about goals. The Gophers are usually long on players who pass, defend, hustle, and generally play team soccer. They conversely are usually shorter on born and bred goal scorers. Last year, April Bockin decided to light the entire world on fire and score 13 goals, but no one else had more than 3. This year (no “score by committee” answers allowed), who is going to take the top scorer crown?
It’s good for you to get comfortable with this question now because it’s probably the one thing that all broadcast teams will mention this season. The very standard answer for them to give will be Patricia Ward. She flashed some serious potential as a freshmen winger and, when engaged, she’s the kind of threat other teams absolutely have to gameplan for based on athleticism alone. All-American Katie Duong may decide to keep her ridiculous form from high school and club going straight through her college career. Yacovella earned the tag “athletic beast” from Golan (ALERT: reading too much into the recruiting announcement language…?) so could she get on the end of enough passes from natural passers like Nummerdor, Gray, or Del Moral? It’s tough to put odds on this bet. And the “who gets named Captain” bet could be equally interesting. But we’ll save that one for our first live report from camp on Tuesday.
Last but not least
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