Author: Matt Privratsky
Last year’s campaign has some of Gopher Soccer’s highest and lowest moments all wrapped into a single wild ride of a first season for Head Coach Erin Chastain. Now, with a year (vs just days) to prepare, Chastain will look to lead the Gophers back into Big Ten contention (or at least Conference Tournament participation) with a veteran-laden group ready to erase the bad taste of last fall’s finish.
Lay of the land
In a year where they *housed* Ohio State and Penn State, putting in some of the most high flying performances of our time covering the team, the Gophers also ended with one of the more disappointing finishes: 10th in the Big Ten and out of the Conference Tournament field. But multiple big scoring outputs buoyed them to a scoring margin that ranked 5th in the Big Ten – demonstrating a bit of their ceiling while their finish in the standings firmly demonstrated their floor.
This fall, there is reason for optimism. Head coach Erin Chastain has had months to prepare the team for this fall vs just days last year. Almost the entire team is back (Langdok, Baker, Ward as the only key contributors to no longer be available this year). And, not to put it too bluntly, but the collapse at the end of last fall’s campaign (losing 2-3 to Purdue after being up 2-0, going scoreless against Iowa and Nebraska in back to back losses) would be hard to match so there’s almost no way to go anywhere but up.
Trends to Track
As the season gets rolling, the first thing to track is whether it feels like players are in the right spots on the field. Last year, with almost no time to prepare to install her system, Head Coach Erin Chastain stuck with a straight-forward, diamond 4-4-2 formation that makes nearly everyone’s role clear. In the transition from the Gophers’ 4-3-3 of old, that put a lot players “between” positions.
If you were an outside wing on the front line of a 4-3-3, are you now an outside mid in a 4-4-2 that defends a bit more and still works the corner in the final third but just not quite as much? If you were the box to box kind of player in a 4-3-3 (not the most defensive and not the most offensive central midfielder), do you now sorta get forced into a more purely offensive or purely defensive role? Or do you now shift out wide? And if you were the sole central forward, used to having the 18 yard box essentially to yourself, how do you now provide some width if your forward partner is already posting up centrally? Two mainstays of the outside wings in the 4-3-3 went different directions, for example. Kenna Buisman lives up top (where she’s a menace) and Meg Gray lives at outside mid (also a menace). But those moves took weeks to sort out. Will they all be settled this time around?
The next trend to track is whether Minnesota can engineer goals when they aren’t coming naturally in the flow of the game. There were times in the first half of the recent exhibition against Iowa State where Minnesota looked pretty disjointed in the final third. And then, the second half came and the urgency and energy was flipped entirely. In the grind of the college soccer season, things won’t always feel like a 4 or 5 goal explosion. They will, in fact, more regularly feel like you’re playing Nebraska and getting fouled every other time you touch the ball. Can Minnesota find a way to engineer goals through: their press, set pieces, passing combinations and movement in the final third that breaks the defense’s shape and opens up space for a chance? That last one would mean they have really raised their floor. Watch whether players are moving off the ball in the final third. When they aren’t, it can get a little “sloggy” down there.
Finally, how deep will the Gophers rotation be this year? Last year, through a confluence of random injuries, COVID, and coaches choices, Minnesota played their thinnest game to game rotation in our time covering the team – sometimes using as few as 2 or 3 subs. This year, at certain positions, they arguably have *too much* depth. Lauren Donovan, Elizabeth Overberg, and Amelia Brown are all at very least rotation quality holding midfielders. The Gophers play a system that uses one at a time. Soccer teams don’t really like to sub that position all that much. So…what are we gonna do here?
Well, we might see Overberg on the backline a bit as Alana Dressely (she’s back!!! We are psyched!!!) works back to every game, 90 min fitness at outside back. We might see Lauren Donovan get a chance to breathe for a second and Brown holds things down when MN either builds a lead or needs a different look there. But still, you get our point.
Up top is a similar story where Kenna Buisman and Izzy Brown may start, Khyah Harper and Christa Van Loon have looked good, but you also have Sadie Harper with a nice nose for goal. At least at forward players rotating is a bit more expected so having 5 players all capable of playing rotation minutes isn’t actually *that* wild (180 minutes total for two forward spots, divided by 5 is 36 minutes per game for all 5 – it won’t be split that way but 40-60 min for starters and 20-40 for bench forwards isn’t that wild. It could work).
And as we spoke about in last year’s season recap, the act of subbing at all carries at least some value when games bog down and the run of play seems to be going against you (look at you, game AT Purdue…). Is subbing off a starter a “risk” in that moment because you’re removing a top contributor? Sure. But the sheer variety of players and styles, and forcing the opposing team to think for a split second when they see a new player that plays an entirely different way – whether “better” or not – also has some value. All that to say: greater depth this year *should* give Chastain the confidence to go deeper into her bench, which we think will pay dividends.
Key Swing Pieces
There are so many key contributors on this team that will have a huge impact on how this season goes, but here are three in particular that could really make the Gopher season swing one way or another.
Sophia Romine: the transfer from Wisconsin will be charged with being the glue for the Gopher offense in the final third. She’s scrappy. Her work rate is super high. She’s a dribbler. And she will absolutely lead the team in slides/going to ground (honestly might have as many as the rest of the team combined – you can’t *not* notice it). If she can be even fairly close to a natural fit as an attacking midfielder it could do wonders to let others play their more natural roles. And look out for her on the press. If Buisman, Gray, Romine, and Boman are all part of that front 5 and truly turning the press on…I would not want to be an opposing defender.
Gabbie Cesarone: Gabbie is just that super chill, super normal story of someone who is so academically and future focused that she searched for her precise academic program she was interested in, chose her college entirely based on that, happened to then check if they had a soccer team to I guess keep playing on, the team happened to be DIII but who cares, becomes a DIII All American in a star studded four years at Wash U, transfers to a Power 5 DI institution (the University of Minnesota, obv) for grad school that also happens to have a soccer program, and starts at centerback for said program. If you can’t tell, this is a Gab Ces fan space and will continue to be. If your favorite Big Ten team *doesn’t* have a DIII transfer that will immediately be a starter at one of the trickiest positions on the field, what are you even doing?
Sophia Boman: Yes, you did make it 1400 words into a Gopher Soccer piece that barely mentioned Sophia Boman. That’s cause we both: don’t play by the rules AND wanted to save the biggest swing piece for last. Boman will be great no matter what. The absolute *least* she could ever do is be solid in all phases of the game, cover more ground than anybody, and play 90 minutes a game. Think about that. But her having an absurdly high floor isn’t what we came here to talk about. We came here to talk about Boman’s ceiling.
Gopher fans have largely seen Boman play in central midfield. At times I wished she would have been pushed to the 6 (rather than putting Katie Duong there), loved the idea of her playing as a destroyer 8 that covered truly every inch of the field, and have seen her do well as a central attacking midfielder 10 – particularly when she’s on the run, has space in front of her to attack, or can lead the counter after the Gophers turn an opponent over in midfield. If you tried to describe her recent Gopher comparisons in *those* kinds of roles you’d be thinking of the Emily Heslins, Molly Fiedlers, or Josee Stievers (now Melan) of the world. But I want to throw out another comp for Boman to aim toward: April Bockin.
At her best defensively, Bockin was like a more nimble (or way smaller) Kenna Buisman on the press. On the ball, she was fearless and deadly against virtually any one on one matchup. In the final third, she could beat the initial defender, work horizontally along the endline, and slot a “gimme” goal to a teammate with a diagonal ball toward the PK spot. When she was on and dialed in, she was *absurdly* impactful playing on that right wing. Like, win you a whole game because you created two goals single handedly impactful.
Boman definitely has more strength and endurance than Bockin did. She has good quickness and ability on the ball. And she really does seem to be at her best when the game is front of her. She excels on the run and in transition partly because she so naturally sees the field in her line of sight. Now imagine that she’s able to play with her back to the sideline and *everytime* she touches the ball the field is in front of her (as opposed to in central mid when you’re really working with a 360 degree antenna). That is scary as hell. That is a player that could double her goal (4) AND assist (4) totals from last year without blinking an eye. April Bockin averaged roughly 8 goals and 9 assists in her Junior and Senior campaigns on route to becoming an All American, Big Ten Forward of the Year, and NWSL draftee. If I’m Sophia Boman, that’s who I want to emulate and that’s the marker I want to beat.
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