It’s fairly easy to sit here, as the Big Ten Tournament wraps up without MN (let alone the NCAA Tournament) and be a little bit disappointed in how the Gopher Soccer ended. In a fall season that gave us moments more exciting than we’ve seen from Minnesota in years, it was somewhat typical heart break -- an inability to score, playing a bit to competition -- that made the Gophers’ season end early. But this piece isn’t just about the destination (10th in the Big Ten) it’s about how we got here. And to be honest, despite finishing far below where we thought the team could be (and the potential they showed), this team was really damn fun to watch. Let's get into some key lessons learned from this fall campaign!
Elasticity vs Floor/Ceiling
There are times when I can get overly simple in the way I describe the way the Gophers played or in what they may have been missing on a given game. At the macro scale, that can mean boiling how the team played down to simply whether they were able to “raise their floor” or whether a move “maybe limited their ceiling” (both are ways I’ve described the decision to move Katie Duong to holding mid last spring, for instance).
But this year, I think I realized the more pertinent question isn’t always where the team’s floor and ceiling are, but how quickly they can bounce back up toward their upper potential after being brought down toward the most limited form of their game. Nearly every team gets sucked into a back run of play both in the season and within individual games. But having the elasticity of bouncing back out of that rut is something I think gets discounted. What basic things can the team do to go from not possessing at all, to building some offensive shape in the middle third, to actually building chances in the attacking end? When the team is playing well and they’re on an “ebb”, can they have enough tension in that rubber band so that their natural “flow” downward doesn’t drive quite as low and they can, for instance, win multiple games in a row?
In a year where the Gopher only had one winning streak (of 2 games), it feels like a particularly key trend to follow. On the low end, can the team make sure the natural “bad” games don’t lead to a spiral they get stuck in. On the high end, can they take momentum and leverage it for good (we saw how we can play well, let’s do it) vs evil (we played well, we’re good, oh whoops a let down game happened). I put this section first because there were times this year where this group really did look special. I mean I called on them to go on a five game winning streak (more on that later) after not winning *any* back to back games AT ALL at that point in the season, so you know where I land on the hype spectrum. But this team is returning almost everyone next fall. And I personally think they should be thinking of themselves as the team that really should have won a couple games, finished 4th, and been hosting a Big Ten Tournament game. They were that talented. And now they have an entire spring and summer to walk into next season ready to prove it.
Rotation about as narrow as we’ve seen it (kind of)
Having never covered the beginning of a Head Coach’s tenure, I’m not sure I really had a set expectation for how the rotation would look coming into Erin Chastain’s first year leading the program. The rotation started fairly narrow as Erin made clear to the team that game minutes had to first be earned in practice. That disciplined view plus a steady stream of player injuries and other rotating lack of availability, and you essentially had a narrow as hell rotation game to game.
First it was Christa Van Loon replacing Kenna Buisman at left mid. Maybe some spot minutes for Sadie Harper and even Jaden Peck up top. Then Patricia Ward passes the fitness test and starts playing major minutes so Peck drops off. Eventually Rylan Baker is a revelation and essentially *has* to be in the rotation. But Lauren Donovan gets not-COVID sick and can’t play 90 minutes anymore. Kenzie Langdok gets a breakthrough case of COVID and she’s out three games so Ward is an outside back again. Langdok is back and Donovan is back to 90 min shape but then Khyah Harper eventually hurts her ankles and is out.
So all along the rotation essentially stayed 14 players deep, but the 14 players changed a bit game to game, leading to a fair standard 15 players overall above the Buisman Line (graphic above) -- in line with all seasons (either 15 or 16 players each year) since 2018.
But toward the end of the year, the rotation tightened even further -- especially when you look not at *how many players* saw the field, but *how much time* they were seeing overall. Maybe that’s because certain players were killing it (Gray, Buisman) and sort of hard to even consider taking off. Maybe it’s because stakes were starting to get higher (they had an actual shot at finishing top 4) and it felt like sticking with the big guns reduced risks. With Donovan and Boman already playing 90 min a game, and Buisman and Gray essentially then playing 90 min a game, I think the tightened rotation also had a secondary effect -- limiting the Gophers’ ability to change the flow of the game.
Think of the games against Iowa or Nebraska, or even the second half against Purdue. All of those teams are super different but the games at times had a similar feel to them: the run of play (or even just luck) was just frustratingly not in Minnesota’s favor. And fighting against a tide like that can feel impossible. But one way to at least *attempt* to change that flow is to mix it up and rotate some new players on. Maybe an opposing player will have to look twice to remember which Gopher they’re meant to defend. Maybe they’ll try a move that worked on a previous Gopher but the ball gets intercepted by the new Gopher. Maybe the new player is 6’5” and the old player is 5’6” (or vice versa) so literally *where* you can kick a ball has changed.
At times, as mentioned farther above, the narrow rotation was somewhat out of the coaches’ control. Abi Frandsen goes down in warm ups of the Nebraska game. Langdok is out due to COVID. Donovan out with illness. Khyah Harper angle injury. Patricia Ward hadn’t yet passed the fitness test. These are essentially uncontrollable. But it also felt like the rotation was narrowed by choice -- at least at times -- on top of that.
In short: I think the chaos that can occur after subs come on should be thought of as a resource in and of itself and not just as a by-product of subs that are made for other reasons (need more speed, give players a rest, etc). Huh. I guess this section could have just been that one sentence. My bad.
This section got a little less heavy in the last few days as we were able to break the news that MEGAN GRAY IS COMING BACK NEXT FALL. So many emotions to convey except that they are all just one emotion and that emotion is joy. But more on that later. This section is for players that are actually moving on. You'll get your shine next year: Meg, Ken, Alana, Laney.
Makenzie Langdok is for sure departing, having used her 5th year of eligibility this fall, and she deserves some serious love for what she was able to give the Gophers as an outside back. As she mentioned in a show this fall, she grew up playing a sort of wingback/outside attacker type role in a 3-5-2 so it wasn’t *so* out of the question that she’d be able to play outside back. But for folks like us who largely see these players once they get to the college ranks, the transition was almost mindblowingly (it’s a real word) impressive. In previous iterations of Gopher lineups I feel like Kenz played as much as a central striker in the 4-3-3 as she did on the wing. And, save for a few minutes I had forgotten about her freshman season, she never played on the back line.
This fall, she was nothing short of great back there. She held up defensively and certainly never seemed to be *the* target of opposing attacks. And she may have had her best *offensive* season of her Gopher career by switching to the backline. She wasn’t a bomb-it-down-the-wing kind of outside back. She almost used the space like some holding midfielders do. Read the field, see where the opponents are leaving space for you to claim, work forward intentionally so your teammates and read where you’re moving and adapt to cover your space, and BAM -- make a play. I’m embedding both wonder goals (one above, one below) because I’m the boss of me and because they both deserve to be shared. But Kenz also provided a continual offensive threat with her great crossing (realizing now we probably should have some up with some name for she and Delaney Stekr as righty/lefty big service backline pals - that’s on us). So much more we could say but we’ll just end by saying we can’t wait to see you around ELR as a fan. We’ll bring the beers.
Patricia Ward is likely departing (all returning players have proactively made statements either in their senior letters or otherwise) and may use her 5th year of eligibility elsewhere -- possibly closer to her home state of Virginia? She told us on a show this fall that she’d like to continue playing so we’re hopeful we’ll get to see her suit up again next fall.
Patricia came to the U with mountains of potential in the attack. Then Head Coach Stef Golan raved about her potential as a goal scorer. And while she never reached that ceiling statistically, this fall is a great example of the impact she always had on the game. After missing the first two games, she came on against Drake and added a dimension the team just didn’t really have. The closest thing to her keep-opponents-busy-and-guessing vibe is actually probably her fellow classmate Kenna Buisman, who also early-enrolled alongside Ward in the spring prior to their freshman season.
Ward definitely made clear that having to play outside back all of last spring wasn’t exactly the choice *she* would have made (the word “hate” may have been used -- not shocking for a forward having to drop to the back line) but she honestly held up pretty damn good back there. When she’s dialed in, there’s not really a player that can get by her and she was one of the reasons why last spring’s Gophers had such a solid bounce back following that brutal Fall of 2019.
This year, she once again had to play some outside back when Langdok or Frandsen were out, but she largely made her noise in the attack. If there is one memory that will stick in my brain to showcase Patricia’s abilities it will be the Penn State game. There were so many absurd goals this season for Minnesota that her (above) jump the pass, work into position, cross to Izzy Brown sequence probably won’t be *the* goal people remember, but for me it will be up there. One thing Golan always said when I chatted with her about Patricia is that opposing players just hated playing against her because of having to track her on the wing. It’s like when Maddie Nielsen would walk out and the opposing team just sees a giant keeper and gets scared based on her height alone. And against Penn State, I think Patricia showed why.
How did our predictions hold up?
We didn’t use to lean so hard into the prediction game, but this year ended up being a little prediction heavy. Maybe the most bold was our claim that MN could win their final five games in a row (they went 2-3, so…). A lighter prediction involved stating they *would* get their first winning streak of the year in those final five games (all of two games, but the streak *did* happen).
Much earlier on we also predicted the team would score more than a goal a game after barely scoring at all in the first few. The Gophers definitely did that, though in a more impressive and varied way than we thought would be the case at the time.
And probably our most deeply held prediction was that the Gophers were far better than 10th in the Big Ten (their preseason poll position) and could finish as high as 4/5/6 if they played to their potential. Well, the Gophers *did* finish 10th so we probably have to eat crow on that. But if they would have won their last two games -- neither a crazy proposition on paper -- they really *could* have finished 4th so, no, we are not leaving the Gophers Were Actually Pretty Damn Good Island. We will stay here, fussy, and refuse to watch Big Ten Tournament games (unless they involve Minnesotans).
What will this team look like after a full offseason?
Ok now let’s do that thing where we try to project who will play what position in 10 months even though we don’t know who the freshmen and possible transfers will be and have no idea what’s going to happen between now and then. [talks louder over the growns] IT’S FUN TO DREAM, PLEASE LET US HAVE FUN.
For this exercise we are going to pretend that Erin changes to a 4-3-3 because she sort of said that might be her theoretically ideal system once during our first show with her (so this is technically not based on literally nothing -- how’s that for an endorsement of our own idea). We’ll note where a theoretical transfer (MN doesn’t always choose to bring in transfers, but actually *has* added one or more most seasons - Bunnell, Lue, Brown, Van Loon, etc).
In the back, let’s assume Alana Dressely comes back healthy and from there the backline might actually be sort of set? Plaschko should have the edge in keeping the starting spot in goal. Stekr is back as centerback. Overberg looked really solid as a converted centerback AS A FRESHMAN (I mean, E is just a boss) and Abi Frandsen was a menace at leftback. The only real questions is whether you end up wanting Dressely at centerback and that forces E into the midfield or if you want Frandsen in the attack, again. But if you’re trying to go purely from known quantities, you are probably penciling in Frandsen and Dressely as outsidebacks and Stekr and Overberg as centerback in front of Plaschko in net.
Lauren Donovan is locked in at holding mid. In the 3 mid scenario we wouldn’t hate Sophia Boman playing more of a box to box number 8 role, both because she can essentially work hard enough to give you all the benefits at both ends while unleashing another less-terminator-level-fitness midfielder to provide lots of benefit in the attack. If it’s a three person midfield, the third midfield spot alongside Boman and Donovan is maybe the most wide open role on the entire team. Gray could hang there but I kind of want her in the width.
No one else necessarily feels like a super obvious option unless you think of those three in the midfield as living in the width almost more than centrally. Then your Sadie Harpers or Christa Van Loons could slide in? Or if you want your 10 to actually do some hold up play so you do something a little bonkers and drop Rylan Baker there?! The other tweak could be moving Overberg to mid and either she or Donovan holds while the other plays box to box, or they both sit in front as double 6’s but that feels a little defensive for this crew. Maybe a magical #10 or pure central mid exists in the freshmen class and they have the juice to start/play real minutes, too. Or one drops in the transfer portal. We’ll see.
Up top, you are loaded with options. Izzy Brown actually seemed to play best, at times, when she was paired with Baker. Because Baker is so good for teammates to run off of, do you play Brown wide and start Baker in the center? The simplest answer is probably that Brown starts centrally as Buisman and Gray start on the wings, giving you both Harpers, Baker, Van Loon all as options off the bench (to say nothing of an improved Jaden Peck and whoever else makes a jump). Honestly, in a good way, it’s going to be hard to get minutes on this team next fall. They are going to have some depth, I think.
But if it switches to a 4-3-3 where those top wingers really have to cover some ground (maybe in a press?!?!), then at least the rotation minutes may be there off the bench to help Gray/Buisman/etc get more breathers too. Who knows.
Again, this is way too early and most of this is probably wrong. But those are how things seem to sit right now. If they stick with a 4-4-2 and diamond midfield, it’s maybe even more locked in. Donovan and Boman are 90 minute a game players. Gray essentially can be, even at outside mid. Only two forward spots. But with a fuller roster will also come more competition in practice and more chances for players to prove themselves there. There is nothing we’d love more than an Eva Bruer or Kez Inniss or Ansley Connor or whoever just making a jump and *forcing* the coaching staff to find time for them on the field. THAT would actually be great to see. And with a full spring and summer for players to get acclimated to Head Coach Erin Chastain, the rest of the staff, and their system, that’s the kind of thing we might actually get to see next fall.
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