Alli Lipsher had a standout college career and a globe trotting pro career. Now, she's the Director of Goalkeeping for Gopher Soccer, the founder of First Line Futbol, and a strategist with Visible City. We talked to her about coaching young keepers, translating her playing experience into coaching, and urban planning!
You can watch the video chat embedded below (worth it for the puppies alone) or download it as a podcast in iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher.
Earlier this month, the Gopher Soccer program made a splash by signing graduate transfer Cachet Lue - a three year starter at centerback from Texas Christian University. Because we don't typically watch much Big 12 soccer, we reached out to Nick Stephens, a writer for TCU 360 and The 109 to learn more about what kind of impact she may have for Minnesota.
Equal Time Soccer: Thanks for doing this, Nick! Some context from the Minnesota side. The Gophers lost their starting centerback to an ACL tear last spring. That meant their All-Big Ten quality leftback Nikki Albrecht played out of position in the middle before shifting back outside once Emily Peterson was able to return. But the backline absolutely could use a solid centerback to push Nikki back out left. How would you describe her game for the Gopher fans already getting their hopes up?
Nick: Gopher fans have every reason to get excited about the arrival of Cachet Lue. The graduate transfer is a physically imposing center back who has anchored the TCU defense for the last two seasons. Lue was recently called in to the Jamaican women’s national team for their matches against Chile, which shows the potential that she has (Jamaica is World Cup-bound this summer). She’s a solid, fundamentally-sound defender who is excellent in the air and saved the TCU squad with a number of last-ditch clearances this season. She also looked composed on the ball and willing to dribble out of the back, though that’s not something she was asked to do very often in TCU’s system-- I don’t know if that will be any different in Minnesota.
ETS: Cachet started from day one down in TCU and played all 64 games during her time there. But it looks like her only big time conference honors were as an All Newcomer in 2016 and we’ve heard some murmuring that maybe effort and hustle were possibly a reason why she never cracked that upper echelon of Big 12 defenders. The Gophers are known for their grit and hard work so I’m sure they did their homework. But does any of that have merit?
Nick: I would disagree wholeheartedly with those rumors. I mentioned earlier that Lue saved TCU on a number of occasions last season with goal-line clearances and goal-saving tackles, and that often meant putting in that extra bit of effort to get in position to make a play on the ball. The Big 12 has a number of talented defenders, to be sure, which may explain her lack of accolades, though I was surprised at the time that she didn’t at least receive honorable mention all-conference this past year with TCU’s stellar defensive numbers. If I were to identify one flaw in her game, it’s probably her 1-on-1 defending. She was exposed a few times last season by attackers who were able to go at her in space and sometimes went to ground too easily trying to stop them. That said, I definitely don’t think you can fault her hustle.
ETS: There’s a nice piece on TCU 360 about her recovery from a tough injury she sustained as a freshman and how that helped her gain some good perspective while watching from the sidelines. How would you describe her role on the team down there?
Robbie’s a good writer, and I think his piece that you referenced helps explain the way Lue plays. When you watch her, you can tell that she really understands the game. There are some very talented soccer players at all levels who struggle because they just don’t fully grasp tactics or nuances, but she’s never had that problem, and I think her time observing on the bench helped with that. The TCU defense had quite a few injury issues this season, with Tijana Djuricek and Brandi Peterson switching out as Lue’s center-back partner, but she never missed a beat and made sure the defense didn’t either. For what it’s worth, I’ve also heard that she was a good leader and very well-liked in the locker room.
ETS: We haven’t had many starter-quality transfers come in to the U of M recently, let alone from Power 5 conferences like the Big 12. This spring, they’ve already announced Cachet and a rotation player from Baylor (Emily Bunnell). How would you describe the level and style of play in the Big 12 if fans are looking for some context?
Nick: The gap between the top and bottom teams in the Big 12 is still pretty large, but I definitely think the level of play has improved significantly in the last couple seasons. The perennial powerhouses (Texas, West Virginia) have remained strong and there are a number of up-and-coming programs (Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech). If I had to identify one characteristic of the league, I would say that it’s probably the impressive athleticism. The Big 12 doesn’t have the most technically skilled teams and they’re usually not going to beat you with their passing, but they’re going to outrun you, outjump you and body you off the ball. The next step for the league is probably to improve that technical side, and I think we’re seeing signs of that with a few schools.
The Gophers' 2018 season was a bit of a roller coaster. Huge moral victories like taking Stanford to overtime and getting Captain Emily Peterson back just five and a half months after her ACL tear were surrounded by tough losses to Indiana and Wisconsin that nearly kept Minnesota from qualifying for the conference tournament. But Head Coach Stefanie Golan and the Gophers found a little magic and hit their stride at exactly the right moment and took home the Big Ten Conference Championship on their way to an opening round NCAA Tournament win against Auburn.
With a little bit of time to digest the ups and downs of such a dramatic season, let's take a look back at key takeaways from this year's Gopher Soccer squad. (If you've already had enough reading, you can watch our lengthy chat with Coach Golan below or listen to it as a podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Stitcher)
How things went overall
For all the ups and downs this year's Gopher Soccer team had in terms of form and performance, there were really only two truly bad results: the tie at Michigan State and the loss to Indiana. There were plenty of other stretches where the team didn't quite play to it's potential and other times still where they weren't particularly fun to watch, but they found a way to piece together results as new players and coaches gained their footing.
It's easy to forget while you watch the team play - in part because you are literally looking over them - but essentially the entire assistant coaching staff turned over not long before the season started. SJ, the teams Director of Operations, is still running things behind the scenes. But Molly Rouse and Becky Fletcher had to settle into their roles and Alli Lipsher had to take on the task of a wide open goalkeeper competition. That coaching turnover combined with increased roles on the field for four true freshman and several others meant the ebbs and flows of the season tended to vary widely.
Who stepped up
In general, the rotation looks about how it usually does. 16 players got meaningful minutes throughout the season. April Bockin, Molly Fiedler, and Patricia Ward were named to the First, Third, and Freshman All Big Ten teams respectively. We would argue that Athena Kuehn, Nikki Albrecht, and Emily Heslin probably did enough shoring up the defense and Megan Gray did enough as a steady attacking presence to warrant recognition as well. Let's call them the four of them the Equal Time All Stars until someone tweets a better suggestion at us. Coach Golan already did an extended and in-depth chat with us specifically on the award winners (both Big Ten and Equal Time All Stars) that you can listen to on Facebook or iTunes. Now let's take a moment to give some others a bit of credit.
McKenna has great straight line speed, good strength on the ball, and a nice left foot for a cross or a shot on frame. Because she's still a bit raw with her dribble and first touch, she hasn't seen time in the middle of the field. But with her size and strength, she could end up being a super dangerous target forward. Getting so many minutes as a true freshman was a big boost. You could see her hit a bit of a freshman wall when the Gophers hit Big Ten play but she worked her way through it and had a few really solid games in the conference and NCAA Tournament. Another offseason of working on her agility and footwork could make Buisman into a seriously dangerous threat in just her sophomore season. Here's to hoping we get to watch her in WPSL again this summer.
Nummerdor said in an interview earlier this season that she really prefers to play in the midfield, but she clearly has a knack for drifting a bit higher up field. Her strengths and weaknesses are essentially a mirror image to Buisman's. She has great touch. She can operate in tight spaces. And you can tell she belongs in the center of the pitch. Though she's not as physically bruising as others on the team, she's shown enough grit to be able to keep a defender on her back and make a turn toward goal. Like Buisman, she had some of her strongest showings late in the year and we think she may have a future as a bit of a hybrid 9/10 - someone who drifts back to the midfield to receive the pass when need-be but drifts toward the top of the box to let wingers run into space.
Windingstad was one of several Gophers tasked with replacing an outstanding graduating senior. In her case: Maddie Gaffney. Through some bumps and bruises, she showed she was up to the task of being a Big Ten outside back. She's quick and athletic. And, though we sometimes thought she seemed almost too thoughtful and patient with her passing, the coaching staff was quick to remind us that her pass completion percentage was near the top of the team. If she can continue to grow her game in the offseason and return as a back line starter (alongside Nikki Albrecht and Athena Kuehn), it would be a real luxury for Coach Golan to only have to find one more starter. So, take your time 'Ris. What do we know!
How things look for next season
There were so many players who stepped into increased roles in the rotation this season. And yet, even with five seniors leaving the team and opening up major minutes, the returning Gophers better be ready to battle for minutes in 2019. The incoming class for next fall has TEN players in it already, and that doesn't include possible transfers (there's at least one serious power five starter as a possibility...). Of the returners, there are probably a handful we'd put in "sure thing" or "close to sure thing" starter category for next season.
Athena Kuehn and Nikki Albrecht are absolute beasts on the back line. Patricia Ward and Megan Gray both showed enough that, if they keep improving, they have a shot to lock in starting spots. Windingstad will come in with a good shot to keep that right back spot. We also generally like what we saw early on from Delaney Stekr on the backline and from Maddie Nielsen as a first time starting keeper. But Stekr lost minutes to Catherine Billings late in the season and there are two freshman keepers coming in ready to compete and Nielsen's save percentage of .748 put her toward the bottom of the Big Ten. Still, Nielsen's improvement throughout the season and strong finish through the conference tournament definitely give her a leg up.
In the front six, plenty of players like Langdok, Buisman, Nummerdor, Del Moral, and McKendrick will all battle for time but none could be said to have a spot guaranteed. Failing to crack the starting lineup as a midfielder or forward doesn't exactly mean you don't play. At least four or five subs should get consistent minutes and they're essentially all in the front six of that 4-3-3.
Gophers going pro
Over the off-season, we'll try to cover other stories from DII, DIII, and the WPSL. But we're also going to take on something a bit more ambitious. There are a few Gopher seniors who are planning to pursue a professional soccer career and we'll be following them every step of the way. Keep an eye out for future coverage, specifically by 'Liking' our Facebook page (where we may or may not be planning a video mini-series about the transition from college to pros...)
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