Soccer is a complicated game. Unlike football or baseball, you don’t reset and get coaching guidance after every 15 second burst. You have to read the game as it goes and make decisions in the moment. In college, in particular, you have to reestablish chemistry and flow and players sub in and out. You have to play opponents within a few days of each other with almost no way to have speed of play practices - because they would only wear you down further. But, for the sake of this analysis, let’s be overly simplistic and pretend soccer breaks down into two key strengths and abilities: the Venn Diagram of speed and savvy.
**Extra disclaimer: a player being in camp or the other does not mean they are bad**
SPEED: Whether a player has the quickness and speed to either blow past or catch up to an opposing player is one of the easiest things to spot on the field. In the case of 2019 Gophers, speed alone has been a significant determinant for who plays on the backline. But it’s also the defining characteristic of attackers like Patricia Ward or Haley Hartkemeyer. Their quick burst and top line speed epitomizes their value in the attack but they’re necessarily known for combining in a dangerous passing sequence or even attacking on the dribble, unless it’s a single move and essentially a straight line. But because of a lack of overall speed on the roster they’ve both proven to be valuable up top for their ability to add an element others may not bring.
SAVVY: This is definitely a more subjective category for us to draw a circle around. On a given day, plenty of players may show flashes of some clever passing and movement (Makenzie Langdok, Arianna Del Moral, etc) but maybe don’t bring it consistently enough to make up for their lack of top line athleticism. Whereas players like Megan Gray and Cachet Lue survive as slightly higher level impact players because they can read the game well enough to make it into position - offensively and defensively - before a quicker, but maybe less savvy player, might. Celina Nummerdor, and her supreme ability on the ball and newfound physical play but lack of sprinter speed, may be the true mayor of this group.
DOUBLE THREAT: The true unicorn, then, is a player who has the speed AND savvy to physically out play an opponent while also out-thinking them. Your Katie Duongs. Your Athena Kuehns. They have the burst and top end speed to break through a defensive line or chase down an opponent on a breakaway but they also have the soccer IQ to combine with a teammate and place a pass in the exact right place for a streaming teammate to have a chance on goal. Nikki Albrecht spent years as a poster child for this overlap but seems to have lost a little bit of speed and agility while battling back from injuries last spring. Though she can still destroy opponents, defensively and offensively, in tight spaces. Just not quite as much in the wide open.
The question is: who on this current roster has shown flashes of potential to shift from one camp into the overlap? Katie Koker has moments of both and hustles her tail off. She could take over the Marisa Windingstad backline role of being quick enough to stay in front of attackers and smart enough to limit mistakes. Alana Dressely has been rock solid as a defender and seems to have her name at least in pencil as a starting defender next year. Paige Elliott showed the physicality from day one and has now shown some serious potential in decision making as a centerback. Manthy Brady might just decide to come back next year as a 10 goal a year forward based on her moxy and interest in taking on basically everyone. Sadie Harper has the hustle and speed down and could gain some more ball skill over the spring. We’re still high on Kenna Buisman’s potential as a bruising, physical hold up forward if her redshirt year lets her improve her first touch and improve her agility a bit. Delaney Stekr may not have the quickness or speed to start full time yet but can that be developed if it’s a player’s primary focus over a spring/summer? Maybe.
If we pretend that no incoming players exist, and had to guess based purely on the potential we’ve seen this year, we’d feel best about Koker, Elliott, and Dressely has pretty solid starting options in the back. If Minnesota shifts back to a 4-3-3, a triangle of Nummerdor, Duong, and Kuehn could be reeeaaally fun. And up top, maybe Buisman, Gray, and Brady create a nice combination up top. Ward will be recovering from her ACL tear but maybe improves some individual skills as part of that process and comes back ready to battle for a starting spot, too. Obviously possible transfers and incoming players will have something to say about it, but if you made us place a bet today, that’s where we’d land.
The headlines about St Thomas’ athletics saga have almost entirely focused on their men’s football team, but the impact to the soccer landscape in Minnesota could be significant. With the announcement that St Thomas has officially both accepted an invite to join the Division I (DI) Summit League and applied for a waiver from the NCAA to jump directly from DIII to DI, top level college soccer programs in Minnesota may triple in an instant. Here’s what we know so far:
THE WAIVER: St Thomas has publicly said they expect to get a ruling on their waiver sometime this school year (before June, 2020 at the latest). The waiver is needed because NCCA rules required colleges to move up one division at a time (DIII to DII, DII to DI, etc). St Thomas believes their extenuating circumstances - getting kicked out of the MIAC - will help them receive an unprecedented waiver to jump directly from DIII to DI. For all you conspiracy theorists out there, we have heard from several MIAC coaches since last summer that St Thomas specifically wanted to be kicked out, rather than leave on their own, in order to create this kind of narrative. Though it’s unclear that any agreement with a DI conference, or the idea of using their forced exit as ammunition for a waiver application, would’ve been the specific end-game for “playing the victim” back then or even if there is truth to the theory. Still, if the waiver is granted and being kicked out of their previous conference is referenced in the NCAA ruling, it will make for some fun speculation.
MAKING THE JUMP: If the waiver is granted, the plan would be for St Thomas to begin play in the Summit League for the 2021-2022 calendar - the start of a four year provisional period into full DI membership. That would mean that freshman on those inaugural DI teams would currently be sophomores in high school. And, as crazy as it sounds, that is essentially when top women’s soccer programs lock-in commitments. For Summit League programs - and everyone, at times - it can still happen much later than that. But the timing may mean that the school literally starts recruiting as soon as they receive the ruling this fall or next spring. Women’s DI programs are allowed to offer the equivalents of 14 full scholarships. DII programs are allowed to offer the equivalents of 9.9 full scholarships, but many of the DII programs in the area - and DI programs elsewhere - are given budgets that do not max out their allowable scholarships. Given that the football program is slated to apply for the non-scholarship Pioneer League, will that leave greater resources for other sports to maximize their scholarship offers? We’ll see.
FACILITIES: The biggest facilities need for the jump to DI will be hockey. St Thomas currently plays in the St Thomas Academy high school arena. So finding a new hockey home - almost definitely off campus - will be a top priority. There may also need to be some changes to soccer facilities because they’re currently shared with the softball team (an outfield wall is simply put up for the spring season) but there will be some time to make those changes, if necessary. It might simply mean the softball team no longer plays there. So soccer may simply remain.
THE IMPACT: The bigger long term story is what it will mean to add the state’s only DI men’s soccer program and its second DI women’s program. Sure, the Summit League is only a midmajor, and building competitive teams may take St Thomas years, but the impact will still be significant. Folks we talk to at the University of Minnesota give no sense that a men’s soccer program for the Gophers would ever really be in the cards. Adding a mens team would require either adding another womens team of some kind (not likely given buget constraints) or removing a different men’s team (always tougher to take something away than create something new, politically). So this will be a unique opportunity for Minnesota to add it’s first every DI men’s soccer program and only program above DIII.
On the women’s side, Minnesota has long been an exporter of DI talent thanks to so many border schools in the Dakota’s and Iowa and the fact that the U is the state’s only DI program. From the U’s perspective, a strong St Thomas program could mean a consistent exhibition and non-conference opponent without much threat to their recruiting base. From St Thomas’ perspective, they should be able to feast on just-below-Power 5 recruits from across the Twin Cities, in particular, who no longer have to choose an out of state school if they don’t fit at the U. And either way, fans will still have more top level college soccer to watch. Everybody wins.
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