At this point in the season, the Gopher Soccer team is coming off its only loss and it’s likely the biggest opportunity for followers of the program to start letting their own confirmation bias drift into play. If you’re like the folks who picked Minnesota around 10th in the Big Ten, you saw them drop their “first real test”. If you’re (like me) and thought they always had the potential to finish as high as 5th or 6th, you’re thinking they battled well against a top team in the nation in terms of RPI. But with a road trip to Ohio State and Michigan State coming up this weekend, should we be thinking the Gopher Soccer glass is half empty or half full? Let’s walk through it.
Defense - Glass Half Empty
Minnesota kept 7 clean sheets against only ok competition and against the first big time offense they face they give up two goals -- one million times (we considered ‘infinity’ here, but kept it to numbers that can be multiplied) the number of goals they’d given up in the previous *seven* games combined. Their make-shift backline held up fine against cupcake opponents but didn’t have the juice to withstand real pressure against Wisconsin. They might do okay against the bottom half dozen teams in conference play, and could even squeak into the Big Ten Tournament, but they don’t have the defense needed to hang in knockout rounds.
Defense - Glass Half Full
It’s only like two seconds into Erin Chastain’s tenure as head coach. Three of the defenders aren’t even defenders and one of the outside backs (Patricia Ward) had to fill in on short notice because Makenzie Langdok unfortunately was out for Wisconsin (and likely both of the States). And the squad overall was a bit frazzled during that first 35 minutes of the border battle, so the defense didn’t exactly have a solid shape in front of them either. In other words, chill. Every game has been a new test for this new-look back five (defenders plus Plaschko) and they’ve shown that they can improve every single week. Now we get to see how they battle back after being knocked down.
Offense - Glass Half Empty
Minnesota barely scored prior to the Wyoming game, only put up two goals on a North Dakota team that dropped a match to (admittedly great) DII Bemidji State, and only managed to get on the board against Wisconsin via what was ultimately an own goal by Wisconsin. There are still big gaps between the lines for Minnesota and they are both not connected enough in the attack and leaving big spaces in between the defense and the attack that lets other teams establish super comfortable position essentially all game long.
Offense - Glass Half Full
Even when goals aren’t exactly world class upper 90 finishes they can still be well-earned -- and Izzy Brown’s deflection goal was well-earned. This team scored two goals in four games prior to Wyoming because they have roughly a shit load of players all working into the rotation for the first time or in new positions. And, yes, this year’s team still has bits of that lingering “play to the opponents” level that previous iterations have had, but that’s as much a ceiling raiser and a floor lower-er. This crew had *close* to equal run of play after that first 30-ish minutes against a Wisconsin team that really, honestly, played great soccer. Once they got their sea legs, they showed that they’re ready to combine and compete in the attack.
Final Verdict - YOU KNOW IT’S HALF FULL
Anyone who is down on this year’s Gopher squad didn’t see Maddie Baker, Sophia Boman, and Megan Gray combining in the middle third to cut lose attacks toward the Wisconsin goal. They didn’t see how getting Lauren Donovan in at the 6 unleashed Meg Gray to play more up field and how that, combined with Baker and other combiners, adds *just* enough spice, movement, and combination to make the Gophers feel not only competent in the attack but also super damn fun.
Here’s the deal, Patricia Ward had to come in and play right back again (a position she *doesn’t* like to play) and looked good. Lauren Donovan isn’t quite back to 90 minutes a game cause of a brutal case of strep. Ward will have to hang at right back for a couple matches, but she can grit that out. Donovan is only getting closer to returning to her 90 minute a game role she owned early in the year and if she can just get a *bit* higher essentially at all times -- like 5-10 yards farther up field -- that *might* held drag the defensive line along with her. This could help the team keep a more “as a team” shape both defensively AND offensively. This team is dangerous when they get their outside backs down the wing, when Boman gets into combination on the wing or at the top, AND when they possess deep in the opposing third.
But the final step to making that final third possession super dangerous will be if Donovan can be a trailing runner/option at the top of the box. Gopher attackers have already been coached up to make the supporting runs needed (Buisman, others have been rightfully making those runs the last few games even when they aren’t getting service). But the final step will be Donovan occupying space from about 25 yards out, right up top, and showing she’s a threat. That will pull defenders her way and open up space for other runners. But she can also just flat out rip it and I bet could score in her own right from there.
If Minnesota can at least tie (we think they can win) against Ohio State and finish things off with a win against Michigan State they’ll be cookin' as they return home to face top dogs Rutgers AND Penn State in the same weekend.
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