The early word out of Gopher Soccer camp this fall was that the squad had more attacking chops than years one and two. The freshmen group has mountains of potential (even with highly touted attacker Caroline Birdsell out this fall recovering from a knee injury) and they brought in All American Megan Nemec to wreak havoc from the wing. In theory, their ceiling in 2023 should be higher. But after two exhibitions against NDSU (2-0 win) and Iowa State (0-1 loss), it’s not clear whether their floor moved much. As Minnesota approaches their 2023 regular season opener against Niagara on Thursday, August 17th, let’s take a detailed look at this year’s squad.
Quick glance at the core stats
The best way to describe the Gopher Soccer program early in the Erin Chastain rebuild would be “solid.” They score more goals than they allow. They essentially score and defend the way the stats (expected goals) say they would. They pass and possess ok. And they’ve been quite a bit better at home (11-6-2) than on the road (5-8-4).
As the season gets rolling, here are two things to watch for in order to gauge the kind of progress the program is making in year three of the Chastain era.
How they’re going to line up
Coming into camp, we might have predicted a 4-1-4-1. Early in camp, we might have predicted a 4-3-3. Before the Iowa State exhibition, we would have been pretty comfortable putting down money on a 4-2-3-1. While the “double six” look still appears to be the odds on favorite, it’s worth noting Chastain is not a purist when it comes to formation or even the rotation. When the Gophers were struggling to create true chances against Iowa State, she moved holding midfielder Amelia Brown to centerback in an attempt to unlock some offense. Then, when Iowa State went up 1-0 (in part due to some defensive miscues on the back line), Minnesota shifted to a 4-3-3 to try and get numbers forward. In other words, the starting formation and lineup is not only *not* carved in stone for the season, it’s not even cemented from opening to closing whistle.
Still, if we assume 4-2-3-1 is where we’re starting, here’s how the rotation might look. Captain Megan Plaschko will be in goal with Abi Frandsen, Jordy Rothwell, and Elizabeth Overberg starting from right back to left center back. Left back appears to be a three horse race between Christa Van Loon, Jelena Zbiljic, and freshman Taylor Heimerl – with Heimerl likely to be given the chance to claim it once she’s fully cleared, presumably by opening night. The Gopher need for more offensive spark may drive the choice here. And Heimerl’s ability to absolutely HUCK the ball all the way into the box should not be overlooked.
When they’re rolling with their double holding midfielder look, expect freshman phenom Kate Childers, Amelia Brown, and Sophia Barjesteh to split those 180 minutes among the three of them. Paige Kalal, Sophia Boman, Megan Nemec, and Sophia Romine appear to have the three attacking midfield spots on absolute lock down, due to both talent and fitness. Which leaves a sole forward spot for Izzy Brown, Khyah Harper, and Sadie Harper to do their damage. Izzy was out for the NDSU game and maybe showed the best of the group against Iowa State. But make no mistake, this spot (and any front line attacker minutes) will be based entirely on production. If someone catches fire and gets themselves in form, they will start. Now, could Sadie also see minutes at one of the “outside mid” spots? Absolutely. If they have to shift to a 4-3-3, could all three of the “forwards” (Harper, Harper, Izzy) be out there? Definitely.
And, if things do bog down in the 4-2-3-1 and they go a bit more offensive in the 4-3-3, don’t be surprised if that’s when we see Romine at the tip of the spear for stretches as well. As I mentioned in the early camp preview, that look in particular could be where you see the most pressing potential. Sadie, Romine, Nemec up front, Kalal and Boman behind them running a wild, high work rate press. Bring on Izzy and/or Khyah once the opposing team is tired and flustered to beat the defense in the half court to close out the first half? I can see it. Or maybe I’m just day-dreaming about it/hoping for it. We’ll see.
Either way, after seeing the two exhibition games, it’s clear the Gophers could use more creativity and creation on-ball, more movement off-ball to stretch the defense and give the ball handler the *chance* to create, and better corner/free kick service to create offense when the first two things aren’t happening.
Where will the Gophers finish?
We have yet to see the Big Ten coaches poll results, but Chris Henderson of Woso Independent slates the Gophers in at 8th for 2023 – where they finished in 2022. If they play like they did against Iowa State every single game, they could certainly fall well below that mark. If they play like they did against NDSU, 8th place and an opening road matchup against the best team in the conference in the Big Ten Tournament feels about right. If they play to the potential that had coach Chastain excited early in camp – even for stretches – I’d bet they have a shot to climb.
Captain Sophia Boman said the team’s goal is for a Big Ten Championship. Using the most generous definition of *either* a regular season or tournament championship, Minnesota’s most likely path to that goal is almost definitely by doing well enough in the regular season (top four in the conference) to host an opening round game of the conference tournament. From there, hope to play your best and for other matchups to fall the right way. It is absolutely within the *potential* of this year’s Gopher Soccer team to work into form and finish top four. If they’re able to pull off a season like that, it will have meant a significant jump in game to game discipline (read: not dropping games they shouldn’t), a jump in set piece effectiveness (read: both service and finishing improving), and some seriously impressive individual seasons (read: Nemec, Romine, Boman, Izzy, Khyah, whoever going OFF offensively, regularly).
Stay connected with us!
If there are elements of this team you’d like to see us cover more of, please reach out via Twitter, Instagram, email, or anywhere you see us. MJ will be live tweeting all Gopher games this fall, I (Matt) will be broadcasting home games and making it to as many road games as I can. We’ll be hanging out in the parking lot at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium for the home games and, if folks are interested, we can throw road games on at Black Hart, Makwa, or another women’s soccer supporting location. Just let us know!
Supporters giving $10/month and up
Jim & Kristen Gray
Join them in supporting our work!