Author: Matt Privratsky
After a long break to let the dust settle on the fall soccer season, let’s jump back into the DI women’s soccer beats in Minnesota. The University of Minnesota Gopher Soccer team finished the 2023 season 7-6-4 overall and 3-5-2 in Big Ten play – good for 10th place. They finished inside the top 100 in terms of RPI (83, vs 102 and 127 the years before) for the first time in the Erin Chastain era. And, per usual, they had some impressive performances (road draws against Georgia and Indiana) that gave glimpses of hope to cling to. As spring practices kick off in 2024, let’s take a closer look at things to take away from last fall and what to track as teams kickoff the new year.
What they did well in 2023
The Gopher Soccer staff will tell you that they’ve been leveling up the complexity of their style of play each year in the Erin Chastain era. Opposing coaches (often unprompted) regularly told me the same thing during my prep calls for home Gopher broadcasts. And the numbers do seem to back up those claims. Passing, possession, and expected goals (xG, roughly represents the quality of chances being created) all had a noticeable jump in 2023 compared to the teams’ first two years.
By the eye test, I’d say last fall was a mixture of progress and, in part due to rightfully increased expectations, some disappointment. If you go back and listen to the sheer excitement and optimism from training camp interviews about the attacking potential of this group, it was palpable. Now, they were still very stout defensively even with a bit more backline rotation than you might typically see. Elizabeth Overberg, Abi Frandsen, and impact grad transfer Jordy Rothwell were stallwards at three spots while Freshman Taylor Heimerl saw some time, Jelena Zbijlic had good stints, and Fiona Skwierofski eventually landed at left back.
Overall, what seems clear from Head Coach Erin Chastain is that she is building for the long term. She is not willing to overly leverage her stout defense into a park the bus strategy. Nor is she willing to take a struggle for scoring as a signal that the team should just play direct and chuck more chances at the goal blindly. She envisions a team that can be stout defensively (like we’ve already seen) *and* create and convert scoring chances at a high level.
For Chastain, who has diligently waited for the opportunity to lead her hometown Alma mater Gopher Soccer program, that ambition makes sense. This is the gig she was waiting for. This is the gig she wants. It’s not shocking that she’s aiming high.
Something to Reflect On: Pecking Order
Long time Minnesota basketball legend Flip Saunders used to say that chemistry is about establishing a pecking order that is fair and understood and acceded to — even if not everybody totally accepts it. This (heavily paraphrased) quote came to mind as I was digesting the 2023 season because Gopher players themselves mentioned, at times, that if the team was going to score, it might require individual players to step up and make that play (rather than a carefully crafted, collective team strategy that magically unlocks a goal through sheer teamwork etc).
As I covered above, this team did seem to take a step forward when it came to passing, possession, and overall chance creation. It might be that, in order for the Gophers to take the next step in terms of converting those chances into goals as well, there has to be a slightly clearer pecking order within the roster itself.
For some comparison, let’s go all the way back in 2018. The Gophers were having a solid all around season. They were winning some games you might expect them to lose. They were losing some games you’d expect them to win. But with a few games left in Big Ten Conference play, they were at risk of a repeat of 2017: when Minnesota got caught on the wrong side of the bubble and missed out on the NCAA Tournament altogether. Then, something clicked. With all credit to the many veteran leaders who carried that team (Heslin, Fiedler and many others), the real swing was that April Bockin became, quite frankly, inevitable. She would rip a steal on the press and score at will. She would work the end line in combination with her teammates and slip passes across the goal line for easy scoring opportunities for her teammates. She made the Gophers borderline impossible to play against.
That kind of individual leap isn’t fair to expect from every single player. It’s not even fair to expect from any given roster. But the *lack* of that leap is what can cause a team to stall into the kind of long scoring draughts we’ve seen throughout my time covering the Gophers since 2016. So his fall, when a game slogs down, when chances aren’t coming, when chances aren’t getting converted: will someone step up, change the flow of the game, and put themselves at the top of the pecking order? That’s what I’ll be watching for.
What are some resolutions for 2024
It’s a bit reductive to continue to use this as a top line goal during the transfer portal era, but in 2024 the Gophers likely need to (wait for it) hit it out of the park when it comes to the portal. They’re on their way, with impact attacker Katie Krohn coming in from Buffalo following an incredibly productive start to her college career.
Krohn fits one of two models Chastain and the Gopher staff have named in terms of their portal targets: first, players with great potential who are also young enough that they can integrate into the growth of the program long term (see: Sophia Romine), second, players who are so high level and fit so well that a one year stint is worth the investment (Cesarone, Rothwell, Nemec, etc). Early word is that Minnesota has still been talking to some impact players as spring practices kick off. At minimum, a center back and/or outside back and true central/front line striker could still be really useful. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if they bringing someone from a seemingly “settled position” simply because the potential is there and current “incumbent” players could shift elsewhere.
Aside from possible outside help, there are some serious heavy hitters on the current roster who might get more of a shot to claim a core rotation spot. Does Taylor Heimerl move up the field to a front line spot? Does highly touted attacker Caroline Birdsell show so well that she almost immediately becomes a mainstay? Does a player like Kate Childers, with multiple holding midfielders now exited through the portal, continue to develop so well that she claims a solo holding midfield role and pushes more midfield minutes up the field?
Random side note on holding midfield in particular: has there ever been a two year stint more drunk on competent to good holding midfielders? In just two-ish seasons, Kate Childers, Amelia Brown, Lauren Donovan, and Sophia Barjesteh all show decently well to incredibly well and all of them are within a year or so of each other. Let’s just say I’m not shocked to see outgoing transfers because that is a ton of capable talent and virtually all of them — in a U of MN context — were likely best as a 6/holding mid. People might see outgoing transfers as a “bad thing”, but I sometimes view it as a quirk of multiple players all hitting well (maybe even above their expected value) and a natural log jam occurring. It doesn’t mean Minnesota couldn’t have kept multiple and played a double 6 formation. But the other players now get a chance to play more minutes elsewhere and Kate Childers has such an absurdly high ceiling that I’m not going to complain if this means she gets to have the chance to be an even more integral part of the system. Seriously, if you’re not on the Childers bandwagon yet you might not be able to find a seat come fall 2024.
Ok, sorry, back to the team as a whole. New roles for folks like Birdsell, Krohn, Heimerl and others, along with returning attackers like Boman, Romine and so many others might just settle my previously mentioned pecking order issue on their own. Maybe that group clicks. Maybe Khyah Harper has a jump in her finishing in her final season. In short, maybe that group just sort of reaches its potential overall and the Gophers just get pretty dangerous.
In that instance, one small piece I’d like to see is a more settled set piece strategy. The team has necessarily rotated some of the set piece taking responsibilities (in an effort to find the right play types and service that works best). But a fully realized version of this team might be one where those roles are a little more than penciled in. And it doesn’t mean it can’t involve multiple players. By my eye, Paige Kalal showed as well as anyone on both corner kick service and even goal scoring opportunities from those short/mid length free kicks in front of goal. Does she cement her role on corners? Do Boman and Romine (and others) have some stake on the shot-taking free kick opportunities? And, do the Gophers find the long distance service weapon for those free kicks near midfield like they’ve had with Delaney Stekr, Gabbie Cesarone, and others the last few years? The kick taking duties rotated as much last fall as I can remember covering this year. It will be interesting to see if someone truly claims one or more of those set piece roles.
Way-Too-Early Rotation Guesses
Caveat 1: I don’t have a strong sense of which young/existing players have made the most internal improvement since the fall season or who might make the most of an opportunity this spring now that certain veterans have left space in the rotation (via graduation or transfer). So these guesses will be far too heavily weighted on what I saw last fall vs what might be possible this fall.
Caveat 2: It is very likely that at least one, if not multiple, mid to high level transfers join this squad before fall. I’ll note where those additions may be most logical, but things can always shift.
In goal, it seems all but certain that Cam Xu (transfer from Montana) will have the chance to own the starting spot. She has tons of college experience (INSERT STATS) and I have a feeling she could really shine.
On the backline, things could get weird! Elizabeth Overberg will return as a veteran center back. Theoretically both Jelena Zbiljic and Fiona Skwierawski could claim outside back spots (both had solid to good stretches last fall). Does rising sophomore Maddie Raymond compete for one of the spots? Do they keep rising sophomore Taylor Heimerl there (where she saw some minutes) or move her to a more natural attacking role? Assuming the team continues to use a four back, a transfer centerback may once again be on the team’s wish list and possibly an outside back (if a heavy hitter happens to be available).
In the midfield, I’d personally love to see the team shift back to the 4-3-3 we’ve seen at times during Chastain’s era and previously. In that scenario, you could see Kate Childers claim a more singular holding mid role with Sophia Boman as one of the attackers in front of her. I might go nuts and throw Paige Kalal next to her and shift Sophia Romine to a “tip of the spear” central role in a three front. But if that ends up being a little too kooky expect Kalal, Romine, and Boman to all see time in the attacking mid roles, with Romine maybe most likely to shift to some winger responsibilities if that front line setup calls for it. If it’s a group of four again, I’d be fine moving Romine, Kalal, and Boman into to any of the left, central, right midfield spots just to see what clicks.
Up top, expect incoming transfer Katie Krohn to play a significant role. Caroline Birdsell (returning from injury) will play a significant role. If it’s a 4-3-3, I wouldn’t complain about a three front with Krohn, Birdsell, and Romine running a high press where you have your Khyah Harper plus whoever of the young guns as a change of pace bench mob that lets Harper feature a bit once the opposing team is tired out a bit (still some untapped potential with her if it the circumstances can land right). Don’t be surprised if the front line is more of a two front, though. Particularly if they decide the best way to deploy their midfield talent is to get all of those four (Childers, Boman, Kalal, Romine) out there together.
Again, these are very limited guess based far too heavily on last fall’s performances. Even if the team shows certain lineups and formations this spring, it might not signal an inevitable look this fall. The truth is, there was more rotation on the backline than you’d expect last fall. There was continued tweaking to the formation and front line. And the best way into Erin’s rotation continues to be to show well consistently in training AND on the field (once you get there).
What are you interested in?
Are there certain players you’d like to see interviewed? Certain topics you like me to dive into in more detail? I’m always very excited to hear your suggestions! You can email me directly (email@example.com), find me on social media (@MattPrivratsky), or message Equal Time directly on any of our platforms. Your questions and recommendations will always be confidential (do not be afraid to recommend we cover your kid/someone you’re close to! It’s usually really helpful to get those reminders!).
You can even let us know what *kinds* of coverage you like most (gameday coverage, posting highlights, post game interviews, full shows, written pieces, What Do The Dads Think, etc). All of that information is super helpful when I have to decide how to spend time and resources (long away trips, new equipment, etc).
Supporters giving $10/month and up
Jim & Kristen Gray
Join them in supporting our work!