In many ways, this fall season for the University of Minnesota is going to be the least predictable in our time covering the team. The Gophers played a shortened 2020-2021 season *in the spring* of 2021 more than a year after their worst ever campaign in 2019. They lost four seniors to graduation and/or new one year stops on COVID eligibility. They lost one of their most talented and highly rated players in Katie Duong to Stanford and a versatile defender in Katie Koker -- who stepped away after a nice bounce back spring. They have less than four midfielders and more than ten forwards listed on the roster for a team that was already a little thin in the midfield. Oh, and they have a brand new head coach who happened to get hired so close to the fall season that she didn’t really get to see them on the field wearing actual U of M gear until a few days ago. And yet, I cannot help but be unabashedly optimistic and excited for this year’s Gopher Soccer team.
Change can be good
One of the reasons I’m optimistic about this fall’s squad is that I’m betting excitement and enthusiasm alone will help the team overcome anywhere from 40-60 percent of the long list of hurdles/challenges/wildcards described above.
In the college game, every season can be a grind -- even when you’re winning. Play two games a week - travel a bunch - keep up with classes - keep up with relationships - adjust to living in a new place. So many of these players come into the team having always been the best, or one of the best, players on the field ev-er-y-single-game-they’ve-ever-played. And now their natural standard is the floor of what it takes to succeed. You have to eat better, lift more, and fine tune constantly. So if the team environment can be a little more fun, interesting, and engaging that’s really helpful to lessen the drudge that can be daily incremental improvement.
In short, as I’ve said so many times since the Gophers lost Head Coach Stef Golan and brought in Erin Chastain to take the reins, change can be good. So with that in mind, let’s continue our pattern of *not* changing and roll-out our typically way-too-early preview of the Gopher Soccer squad of fall 2021!
General wisdom to keep in mind
Now, you might be thinking: “Matt, you haven’t seen the team play even a full sided scrimmage yet, why are you doing this?” To which I would reply: “The fans have spoken!” (and punt all responsibility). But I will also add a few disclaimers, both about the assumptions I am making *and* about how fans should value different roles and labels, as we go along.
Largely because there was not a ton of time to institute a beautiful, complex, brand new system of play in all of a few days, the Gophers are likely to roll out a 4-4-2 that helps simplify players’ roles and positioning (we’re going to assume, for now, that this will be sort of a diamond midfield with a dedicated holding mid). As Erin said in her introductory show with us, she doesn’t believe in forcing a system of play no matter the players.
But, like Stef, she does still seem to value fitness (and needing to pass the fitness test to be fully cleared to play matches) and consistency on the back line (ideally finding an entire back line unit that can play 90 minutes together). Admittedly, these are things maybe *most* coaches would prefer, but particularly given Erin’s early mentions of wanting to eventually work the outside backs into the attack quite a bit, it may take a real badass in the vein of peak Maddie Gaffney or Nikki Albrecht to fill that role to its fullest potential (#FanThrowback) of two-way, 90 minute do-it-all.
An early guess at where everyone will play
There are a lot of moving pieces in a college soccer team’s rotation. Most teams play anywhere from 16-18 players fairly significant minutes and with that many players to pull from, any change to make has secondary ripple effects. For players Gopher fans are used to seeing play wide on the front line of a 4-3-3, you could shift them back to an outside mid role or into a more pure striker role in a 4-4-2. To cover the whole at center back left by the graduation/departure of Athena Kuehn you could pull Alana Dressely central but then you may have to turn someone into an outside back because there are only so many on the roster.
What we do know is that new Head Coach Erin Chastain wants to attack the challenge from a position of strength: start with putting your best players in their best position to succeed and build from there. Alright. We can do that.
Your sure thing starters, based on what we’ve seen, would be Megan Plaschko in goal, Alana Dressely and Delaney Stekr on the backline, Lauren Donovan and Sophia Boman in midfield, and likely Izzy Brown and Patricia Ward up top (though the forward line could be *crowded*). The only reason mainstays like Megan Gray, Kenna Buisman, and Makenzie Langdok aren’t locked in is because it’s not as easy to predict where they might play.
DEFENSE: Meg has come back fit as hell and Erin has said she really wants an outside back that can go 90 minutes….could we see Meg add ‘defender’ to her lengthy list of positions played on her Gopher Soccer resume?! Early murmurs that we could Kenz slide to outside back as well. For now let’s say that sticks and she uses her veterain guile to stay in good position against the other teams’ shiftiest lefties.
We think Dressely might fit well as a center back, which would likely leave veterans Kez Inniss and Eva Bruer battling to claim their first major role as Gophers. Kez had flashes that got coaches excited back in the pre-COVID spring training sessions but Eva has earned praise for her ability to battle through injuries and stay committed. Let’s pencil in Eva there, knowing that multiple players may get a look during the exhibition matches just to see how they do. Eva, Laney, Alana, Kenz: officially projected!
MIDFIELD: Donovan is locked in largely because of the positive reviews of her time as an early enrollee last spring AND because she’s a true blue holding midfielder. As we mentioned earlier, we’re assuming the “slightly simpler to play for the first year the team is all together” 4-4-2 Erin has mentioned may play like a diamond -- with one true holding midfielder who’s a wrecking ball in front of the backline defensively and a distributor just inside midfield on offense AND one true attacking midfielder.
That attacker seems likely to be Sophia Boman. She started off as more of a box to box midfielder last year who tracked back all the way to the Gopher’s own end line, but game by game she was spending more and more time getting straight downhill toward goal, demanding the ball, and willingly taking chances from distance. You’ll probably never take the “run 10 miles a game because she’s tracking back to her own box” part of her game, but our money is on her playing the 10. We have no idea if Donovan can go 90 minutes, but we do know Boman can (and did, all last year - and, from what we hear, somehow came back even *more* fit) and we’re just going to pretend they both do, for now.
Out wide, let’s just be as simple minded as possible and put a couple of lefties (Buisman, and Van Loon) on the left side because we’re basic like that. Both have played serious minutes in their careers, though maybe not in this exact position. But with so many “forwards” on the team, this kind of shift is sort of inevitable (even if these two, specifically, don’t end up being the ones who move). Throw two of our favorites, Meg Gray and Sadie Harper, over on the right where they can pester the hell out of everyone defensively and get into combination offensively. Buisman, Van Loon, Donovan, Boman, Sadie, Meg: officially projected!
FORWARDS: Even though there are only two spots in this line of the attack, I bet you could end up seeing 6 or more players on the field here over the course of the season. We haven’t seen Izzy Brown or Khyah Harper suit up for the Gophers before but both come highly regarded and should score a few goals each - if not way more. Patricia Ward seems likely to move back up top where she can scare opposing defenders again and Abi Frandsen showed enough promise that she seemed destined for some good minutes in the rotation. Obviously Buisman *could* play here. Van Loon and Sadie Harper could as well. But it’s hard to see how *all* of them do.
WILDCARDS: At the top of our wildcard curiosity is Elizabeth Overberg (and not just because we want to tell her about Discussion, a category in high school speech that Minnesota has and Iowa doesnt - we think). She was highly touted as a recruit and coaches were very high on her ability to come in and play early, we just don’t know exactly where that may happen. If she has the juice to play holding mid maybe she spells Donovan at times? If she’s more of an attacker but Boman doesn’t ever really need a sub (she hasn’t yet) then maybe she sees minutes out wide? Our money is on her playing (despite the graphic), we just don’t know where.
For other folks on the roster: Baker is still on the mend and may not see the field early. Josie Wood is also recovering from a leg injury over the summer (as everyone saw in the media day photos). Jaden Peck could factor in up top (we’ve seen freshmen do well in those short stints up there, before). Defenders Aynsley Connor and Cali Carmichael are probably more likely to have a year of learning the system (it is *really hard* to jump in as a freshman defender). And freshman keepers Taryn Reitsma and Alex Isaacs will be given some time to adjust as well, though we’ll note that multiple keepers have seen time in several of our seasons covering the team (injuries, tactics, etc) so hopefully they’re at least ready in the “break in case of emergency” scenario of a surprise knock/illness/whatever to Plaschko -- who is, by a fairly wide margin, one of the least filtered and most fun players to interview, by the way.
How will the team play?
Obviously the formation and “which players are playing where” is only part of the equation. We’re also hugely curious to see *how* the team plays. Are we suckers for a good high press that forces turnovers and creates high percentage offensive chances? You absolutely know that we are. Are we suckers for fantastic combination play and quick passing that leads to a nice and easy diagonal ball back across the center of the box for a trailing runner to hammer home right past the keeper? Obviously. But that kind of coordination and combination can take some time to create.
Here’s what we think the team will/could focus on at first: basic defensive shape and positioning. In the grind of the college season, a lot of the goals teams give up are honestly just silly mistakes. Players get a little tired (either physically or mentally) and just blank on an assignment or a defensive switch or getting back after a turnover etc. If the team locks in fairly well and just stays in front of the player they’re defending, this team should be .500 or better. That may seem so simple and obvious as to almost be stupid, but it’s the truth (especially for the backline and keeper.) If they can do what Stef Golan teams and Erin Chastain teams have traditionally done -- hold opponents to 1 or 0 goals -- then they should be able to play some winning soccer (...as Stef and Erin teams have traditionally done.) And if they actually run a press, even for a few stretches of a few games, I’m going to throw a parade.
Offensively, the Gophers climbed out of the drudgery of lack-of-goals hell that was the 2019 season by focusing some very simple improvements last season: they wanted to earn a crap load (see some of many tweets from last spring below) of corner kicks *and* they finally started taking shots from distance. Neither of those things were particularly lucrative in terms of scoring goals, but they were a great first step toward engineering goals even when they weren’t organically being created in the run of play.
Adding even more finishers like Brown and Khyah Harper should hopefully help the Gophs translate more of the corners into goals. And that willingness to take chances from outside the box was never bad, it just needs to continue evolving so that it can translate into more high percentage chances (once you’re willing to shoot from distance, it should force defenders to come out and defend, which should open up some passing lanes that players off-ball can take advantage of, leading to more open chances on goal than, say, shooting from 30 yards with 7 players from Maryland standing in front of you like a wall).
The other thing that might help up the goal total is a point we made 2k words ago: excitement and enthusiasm alone can make a huge difference. All last spring, I would talk to coaches about the lack of finishing we were seeing during games and wonder what practices had been like. Time and again I was told: these same players who were missing wide or not putting enough mustard on the shot or just not quite finishing were BURYING shots in practice. Like, firing rockets into the back of the net day in and day out. But during game day, whether because of stress or pressing or whatever, they just weren’t able to translate that same practice performance into games. I have no idea if some, most, or all of that can be solved by a sort of “restart” season and a coaching staff of, like, only strikers. But I don’t think it will hurt.
And if any players are reading this (they for sure are not, but parents who are still reading can relay the message for us): just know that I am absolutely psyched for this season and I actually think the Gophs are gonna pile on some goals this year. I’m talking a half dozen players with multiple goals, like a dozen players with at least an assist or a goal, and enough scoring for players to start planning some goofy celebrations. So go out there and make this last paragraph the one prediction I actually get right in this whole piece!
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