Matt sits down with incoming Gopher Soccer transfers Cam Xu, Jelena Zbiljic, Megan Nemec, and Jordy Rothwell to talk about how they chose Minnesota as their new soccer home, what they were looking for when they entered the transfer portal, how they might fit in Erin Chastain's system, and more!
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Gopher Soccer 2022 Season Recap
Author: Matt Privratsky
We let things breathe a bit before putting together our final 2022 Gopher Soccer season recap. The college soccer season is a three month sprint surrounded by a literal 9 month layoff so by the time we’re deep in college soccer season it can be tough to view things with a clear mind. Now, with some time to stop and consider, let’s take a look back at the Gophers’ fall campaign.
High level takeaways: how should we feel?
We should probably feel like (and remember that) team building can take a long ass time. In Stef Golan’s first two or three seasons, the Gophers were right around .500. Erin Chastain’s best seasons at DePaul didn’t come until seasons 7, 8, and 9. Neither of those should be taken as specific predictions of when Gopher win totals might jump, but they *should* be taken as reminders that getting dozens of humans to adapt to an entirely new system and style of play might take more than roughly 15 months.
We should probably also be feeling pretty good about Chastain’s (and her staff’s) use of the transfer portal. Sure, technically we are going from a sample size of two (Izzy Brown and Christa Van Loon arrived *before* Chastain), but it’s hard to imagine a more impactful duo than Sophia Romine and Gabbie Cesarone. One detail that might get overshadowed is just how different a target each of these players are. Cesarone is the kind of player that Chastain would maybe prefer not to rely on year after year (one year impact starter, leaves after one fall season, but just too good not to bring in) while Romine is essentially the exact transfer that *everyone* would kill for (still has multiple seasons left, can play multiple positions, crazy high work rate, etc). Either way, maybe the two most impactful players on the team came via the transfer portal. If even a fraction of that kind of portal success can continue, Gopher fans should be hopeful. But more on transfers later.
We might also need to feel nervous about whether this Minnesota team currently has the impact players it needs to break through to the top of the Big Ten. In our time covering the Gophers they have almost always had quality rotation players and their fair share of grit and hard work players (admittedly that’s ebbed and flowed at times). They have not always seemed to have high level, impact players that drive the tempo of the game *consistently*. There are still entire stretches in games (or stretches *of* games) where the team as a group sort of seems to be waiting for someone else to make a play – as if they are a team that’s one player away and other players are only able to fill that gap for moments at a time but *not* game in, game out.
Snapshot of the 2022 Rotation
Overall, 17 players cracked the Buisman Line (the threshold of being a core rotation player) this fall compared to 15 players last year (a difference that matches the eye test, as well). The break was particularly easy to spot compared to most years. That’s likely in part due to continual narrow scoring margins that made it difficult for the Gophers to do deeper into their bench a few times.
More than anything, the rotation this fall demonstrated two things: 1) Head Coach Erin Chastain had a greater trust in her bench this year than last year and 2) Head Coach Erin Chastain does not f around. No, we didn’t see the crazy short benches that some games produced last year. But we *did* see almost ruthless rotation changes in a given game when a player was being repeatedly beaten by a given opponent. Again, this was driven as much by the incredibly narrow scoring margins as anything else. The Gophers got *very* little scoring production from its front line players and that left an incredibly slim margin for error for defenders and holding midfielders to maintain their rotation spots.
Who are losing/how bad is it?
Ok. Let’s just get this over with. Let’s talk about who we’re losing. We’re ready. We can handle it. Equal Time legend Meg Gray is gone. One-woman havoc press Kenna Buisman is gone. Badass lefty Alana Dressely is gone. Complete nerd and Omahanian Delany Stekr is gone. Forever honorary Minnesotan Gabbie Cesarone is gone as quickly as she arrived. And holding midfielder Lauren Donovan is in the portal. That is six core rotation pieces to be replaced. So yes, it will hurt a bit.
Maybe the most dramatic changes will be felt in the team’s ability to press and play super high work rate defense up top. Gray and Buisman were two of the best pressers on the team and they were also absolute athletic engines. The group of Sadie Harper, Kenna Buisman, Meg Gray, Sophia Romine, and Sophia Boman as a front five was about as good as the Gophers got in terms of forcing the other team to feel uncomfortable and turn the ball over. The front line will almost certainly shift a bit more to hold up and combination play with the likes of Khyah Harper and Izzy Brown pulling more focus.
And the backline will definitely need to be rebuilt. Stekr, Cesarone, and Dressely were all core parts of the defensive unit this fall. Elizabeth Overberg once again showed starting centerback chops in the last few games and Abi Frandsen held her own defensively and shined on the attack at outside back. If those two (and maybe soon to be sophomore Fiona Skwierawski?) can all come back strong then *maybe* they have three spots covered? Still, if I were a top level centerback looking for a place where a starting spot is open, I’d be getting on the Gophers’ radar *now*. More on this later.
Way too early look at next fall’s rotation
Every winter/spring/summer I attempt to predict the Gophers rotation and it is always very very wrong. So let’s do it again! Starting in the back: Megan Plaschko will return as a strong starting keeper. Overberg almost certainly is locked in as one centerback. Let’s assume Abi Frandsen sticks at right back and doesn’t move positions. Skwierawski could claim the other outside back spot (she played well in moments of exhibition and non-conference games). Do you attempt a three back with them? Do you desperately haunt the portal waiting for another Cesarone to all in your lap at centerback? Do you convert someone to centerback (not sure who, with Donovan gone)? They’ll probably consider/attempt all three of those.
The midfield is the most stable with Romine, Boman, Barjestah, and Amelia Brown all back. Don’t sleep on how Romine looked as the center forward in the 4-3-3 at times, though. And it’s probably too early for us to know whether Alma Beaton (who had cups of coffee on the field, similar to Skwierawski) would end up as a winger or midfielder in an expanded rotation role. This is also your general reminder that we will rarely, if ever, speak to a players potential before we see them give signs of it *in a Gopher uniform*. So any players that know in their heart of hearts they’re gonna crack the rotation and are upset at not being mentioned here: don’t worry. We will jump on your hype train the minute we see you in a spring game. Trust us.
Up front, the Gophers will look very different despite returning several core players. And the pressure is on for the attackers to produce. Yes the Gophers scored fairly well overall (around mid table in the Big Ten). But their top three scorers were defenders and midfielders (Romine, Boman, Cesarone). Izzy Brown has always shown flashes of ability to beat individual defenders, score with fantastic touch, and pull attention from the opposing back line. Can she jump from someone who scores 4 or 6 goals a year to double digits? Can Khyah Harper knock in a half dozen? Could Van Loon scale to a larger role? The whole here might not be as big as the very precise centerback shaped one, but if I were a forward who just flat out produces, I’d be thinking about Minnesota in the portal.
See you in Spring!
We’re still trying to get an end-of-season interview with Head Coach Erin Chastain on the books so you should expect at least one more significant Gophers piece in the coming weeks. Other than that, we’ll see you once the Spring season hits OR if a monster transfer announcement comes down.
Minnesota has had stumbles along the way, but the Gophers are heading back to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2018 with hopes of upsetting top seeded Michigan State in the opening round in East Lansing. As they prepare for Sunday’s matchup against one of the best teams in the country, let’s take a look at how the Gophers may matchup against the Spartans – a team, due to scheduling quirks, they have not faced this season.
More negative take
The on-paper analysis of this game is that it’s a tremendously difficult game for the Gophers. To put it in perspective, Minnesota’s most impressive result this fall may be their dramatic road tie at Rutgers (a top ten team at the time). And while Rutgers is a very strong team that’s tough to break down, their 9 goals allowed in conference play is *triple* that of the Michigan State Spartans. Minnesota has given up 11 goals in conference play. Michigan State has given up 7 *all season*. We’ll get into more detailed analysis later on in the piece but the simple take away is that Michigan State is 11th in RPI, 6th in the coaches poll, and are playing on home turf. If Minnesota pulls off a result in this game Erin Chastain deserves a parade.
More optimistic take
Minnesota has almost literally nothing to lose in this game. No outsiders would pick them to win. But the Gophers, even during their most brutal seasons during the Equal Time era, have always shown a flicker of ability to take on top teams. In 2019, their *first* victory of the year was against #14 ranked NC State. In that 2018 Big Ten Tournament we mentioned previously, they squeaked in with a five hundred record (sound familiar?) and ran through the field of ranked opponents to win the title. This year, despite not being able to close each game out, they built leads or seriously competed with TCU, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Rutgers.
When they are playing with confidence, they combine well, they force opponents to feel uncomfortable, and they score some pretty sick goals. It’s not always easy to predict *when* the Gophers will play at their best. But *when* they play at their best, they can run with nearly anyone.
Break it down - Michigan State defense
Ok. We mentioned it earlier and we’ll dive in a bit more here: the Michigan State defense is absurd. Keeper Lauren Kozal is 12th in the country in save percentage (.877) and in conference play she’s been even stingier (.917… good lord). The defense as a whole has the lowest goals allowed average in the country and in conference play that’s translated into only 3 goals scored against the Spartans in 10 games. So…where is the window for success here?
Two things jump out based on their statistical profile. First, they have not given up almost any corner kicks. And while we trust the Spartans to be able to shape many aspects of the run of play on Sunday, it’s hard for us to believe that the Gophers absurd (borderline comical) level of corner kick creation will be entirely stunted. Second, Michigan State had the second most yellow cards in conference play. If the Gophers are even remotely successful defensively and keep this game close, a random errant foul here or corner kick there is about as good a shot as MN may need with such a lethal set piece weapon as Gabbie Cesarone (the team’s leading scorer almost *entirely* off set piece production) in place.
Break it down - Michigan State attack
The Spartans pass and possess *super* well. Their floor, in terms of possession, is about 55 percent. Their floor, in terms of passing accuracy, is just above 70 percent. And both of those numbers are regularly more like two thirds and over 80 percent respectively. That disciplined and accurate passing helps them string together build up play that leads to chances close to goal (average chance is from about 16 yards out) and they get into that attacking position a lot (4th most shots in Big Ten play.)
They are going to be a seriously tough test for the Gopher back line. One possible silver lining: they, like MN, are a pretty damn low offside team. This isn’t a perfect metric, but offside calls can sometimes signal the frequency with which a team pushes the line and tries to get behind the opposing defense (an area MN has been vulnerable at times). If that’s not a weapon the Spartans choose to turn to very frequently, it *might* give the Gopher backline more time to establish their shape and focus on the game in front of them rather than consistently worrying about getting beat and drifting back out of fear for the long ball going over the top.
I’ll be in East Lansing to cover the game in person, including a pregame show around noon featuring former pro Dani Foxhoven Young, State News reporter Nick Lundberg, and (hopefully) former Spartan captain Kristelle Yewah! Live tweets will follow, but let me know in the meantime if there is anything else you’d like to see (a specific mom for What Do The Moms Think, etc).
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