The Gophers are five games into an eleven game slate of Big Ten games and at this point we’ve definitely seen enough of a sample size to start making some more decisive conclusions. Before Minnesota kicks off against Iowa on Sunday, let’s take a look at a few key trends from the spring season so far and take a bit of a look forward to this teams’ potential.
The hard facts and top line take aways
As of now, the Gophers have two wins, two ties, and one loss. That puts them in 6th place, but not too far away from 3rd or 10th in either direction. In other words, there is still quite a bit of season left to go to sort out the entire conference slate. The statement I made after the Nebraska game -- that the team may not have shown it’s ceiling but certainly showed it had raised its floor -- has definitely been proven true. The worst result so far this season was an 0-2 loss on the road to a quality Michigan team due to two fairly fluky mistakes and the best result was the 2-1 win over Northwestern on an epic two goal run after going down 1-0 on a set piece. In the run of play, the Gophers have shown a consistent defensive shape, at times a dangerous press that creates easy offensive opportunities, and a propensity for well out earning corner kicks and shot attempts -- despite not finishing those chances at a super high rate.
Not only has the backline rotation looked different than outsiders may have predicted prior to the season, it has been remarkably consistent. Abi Frandsen had a moment or two back there, but has now moved up top to her more natural attacking role. And Alana Dressely is working her way back into rotation a little more each game. But thus far it’s been the Katie Koker and Patricia Ward show at outside back and Athena Kuehn and Delany Stekr in the middle. There are times when a opposing attacker breaks the line or gets into a dangerous position but more often than not Kuehn has already sniffed it out and shuts it down before it even becomes a chance.
Koker and keeper Megan Plaschko were both recognized as players of the week for shutting out Northwestern and Illinois in the run of play this past weekend -- and rightfully so -- but it’s really been the group as a whole that is impressive. Position changes for teenagers and college players shouldn’t really be seen as that shocking considering all the aspects of the game that change when you get to the college level, but it’s still just been so damn impressive to see Patricia Ward as a model outside back. Sure, when Dressely is ready to play major minutes again there may be some shifting or just some regularly rotation with her, Ward, and Koker. But to this point, that crew has looked stout as hell. Set pieces remain a challenge (the corner kick goal by Northwestern is the only goal surrendered by the Gophers since Plaschko took over as a starter) but that is as much a team-wide issue as it is the back four.
Before this season, if someone asked what the Gophers’ rotation looked like, I could basically describe it from memory. Keeper and defensive line essentially static, at least once kickoff occurs (maybe *some* game to game changes but not much). Midfield more static than attackers but maybe one or two subs in any given game that would play anywhere from 25-45 minutes each/total. Attackers with the most rotation with as many as 3 or 4 subs all seeing between 15-55 minutes off the bench each. This season, the rotation not only hasn’t looked like the version in my memory, it hasn’t even resembled itself game to game.
This is, in part, because the team is managing injuries, health challenges, and fitness. But it’s also because Head Coach Stef Golan seems much more willing to roll with what’s working no matter how consistent that is game to game. And, to this point, it’s really worked.
Against Northwestern, Sadie Harper was in hyperdrive so she saw 69 minutes off the bench and starters essentially stayed in. Against Illinois, the senior crew of Nummerdor/Del Moral/Langdok were all seriously cookin so they each saw minutes in the high 70s. Granted, some of the bench minute swings are also a result of first game of the weekend vs second, but it’s been more than that. It’s not easy managing a rotation. These are talented players who all came from high schools and clubs where they were largely the best player or certainly up there. But Golan has shown a willingness to make more dramatic calls even when it might mean a player’s role is less consistent or, honestly, reduced. And, if not for a few goal line chances not being converted against Illinois, this team would be 3rd in conference after being picked dead last. So you have to applaud the boldness.
Chance creation up, finishing less so
The Gophers are outshooting their opponents 81 to 24. They have 45 corner kicks to only 16 for their opponents. In short, they are being super aggressive in trying to create chances. At times they are so ambitious that they are taking shots from 30+ yards out. And honestly, the problem hasn’t been that the chances are too ambitious, it’s that the players still seem so unused to trying from that distance so they aren’t always going into the chances with good confidence and strong contact. At times they seem like they are maybe deciding to shoot a little too late and then they end up rushing themselves. But the instinct to test the keeper and charge for rebounds (teammates who aren’t shooting have been *fantastic* in making the rebound run in case it bounces free) has been great. So if they start putting a little more mustard on the long tries, this team could really fill up the scoreboard.
To put it another way (a way I didn’t want to say on the broadcast): this team is willing to try shit. When Duong had to shift to holding mid against Illinois, freeing Boman to really attack into that central space, it seemed like Boman took like 5 shots from beyond 25 yards. And I-AM-HERE-FOR-IT. Nummerdor, Langdok, and Del Moral were working it that game. Buisman and Harper have been and continue to be everywhere. There are some gimmies that aren’t being converted on corner kicks and the press isn’t always on so the low hanging fruit hasn’t really been there in terms of getting on the scoreboard. Instead, we get the two goals against Northwestern which might have honestly been some of the prettiest goals we’ve ever seen.
When the team is truly humming offensively, you’d like to be able to count on a half goal a game from the press and maybe a half goal a game from corners (since they are taking soooo many). Then, whatever else you get from the offensive run of play is gravy. That sort of assumes you give up no goals on the defensive end but honestly that assumption isn’t THAT crazy as a goal considering how locked in defensively they’ve been so far.
Legitimate individual growth
Maybe I’m just basking in the ability to watch the Gophers again and wearing some seriously rose covered glasses, but it seems as though players didn’t only progress in their individual development in the year-plus they had between games but also just in the last five games we’ve all been able to see.
Katie Duong’s game against Northwestnern was just otherworldly. Everyone played great that game (truly everyone we saw on the field) but for Duong it was particularly pronounced. She always works hard and covers a lot of ground, but her defensive tenacity were noticeably ratcheted up, so say nothing of her two *perfect* assists that paired with perfect finishes by Koker and Harper. Similarly, we’ve seen Athena Kuehn be an all conference caliber centerback before, but this year you can see her covering ground aggressively and judiciously in a way that seems pretty special.
I wrote about Ward earlier but her consistency at the defensive end has been endlessly impressive. Delaney Stekr’s ability to dominate with her head on a team that is pretty damn short on aerial threats has been a god send. And Katie Koker and Sadie Harper have gone from a two woman Equal Time favorite wrecking crew that cause havoc in the press to an even more composed and consistent two woman wrecking crew that can still cause havoc in the press.
There used to be this phase, early in the season, when the Gophers were playing exhibitions and a few non-conference opponents where they played with so much confidence on the ball and almost dripping with swagger before the Big Ten conference play sort of ground games down into more of a slog. Even in this all Big Ten schedule, rather than starting with that swagger and confidence and gradually losing bits of it as games get more difficult, the Gophers have actually been growing that mentality as the season goes on. Boman said it during her show with Harper. Plaschko and Koker said it during theirs. It was really really weird to come back to playing games after such a long layoff. And they are just so much more comfortable now that they’re in a game to game rhythm.
If they can bottle some of the magic they had against Northwestern and bring it for even stretches of every game from here on out, they could be pretty damn dangerous.
Wild Card Weekend and Big Ten Tournament
Did you remember that there was such a thing as Big Ten Wild Card Weekend? Did you know that it might be a kind of dual site, East-West double group play kind of round robin thing the weekend of April 8th? Did you know that it might (or might not) kind of be a play in for the reduced 4 team Big Ten Tournament field and all these games are just seeding games that lead to those play-in weekends where two top teams from each go to the final four team tournament? We also sort of didn’t know that but we might still not fully know that because we’re not sure if that’s all true. But parts of it are definitely true and all of it might be true. We aren’t sure. BUT, if it’s that East-West split, the West side honestly is a little easier so it’s kind of nice luck for MN (avoid Penn State, Ohio State, Rutgers, etc). We’ll see.
Also, pssst, word is the last three home games at the end of March might be played outdoors, if possible -- at a large outdoor stadium with heating coils and turf that offers some insurance should temps dip back down or we get some snow between now and then. And no, I’m not jinxing it. Because I’m not naming the venue explicitly. Jinx Law requires you to name it in order for you to ruin the chances of it happening. I’m only *hinting* (very strong) at it.
[and photos don't count. photos are only hints. #JinxLaw]
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