Listen. Conference play is rarely pretty. The last time the Gopher Soccer program won the Big Ten Championship they barely made the Tournament and then got hot at the right time, riding some insane performances by impact players. This fall, as they continue their transition into the Erin Chastain era, the Gophers have shown potential to play up to competition in stretches but far too little discipline for a group that is, frankly, old as hell. So now, three games into Big Ten play, the Gophers goals of making the Big Ten Tournament field (finishing in the top 8) are beginning to be truly tested. Here’s what to watch as they prepare for a showdown against MIchigan this Thursday.
Macro vs Micro
When I over-obsessively talk about the Gophers rotation it’s usually about “how much” Head Coach Erin Chastain is using the bench or “how many minutes” we’re seeing the bench at the macro level. But this year, the bench has largely been a consistent force overall (save for the Baylor and Nebraska games). The more interesting dynamics this fall have been in those individual tweaks at the micro level.
Sophia Romine got moved from the number 10 (central attacking midfielder) to more of a tip of the spear forward at the center of the 4-3-3 so her dribbling and creativity could be a little closer to goal. Abi Fransen solidifies her spot at outside back because of her attacking juice only for Elizabeth Overberg to then, once again, see major minutes because of her stout defensive positioning. Amelia Brown gets her first career starts and plays well only to have Lauren Donovan come on to bring slightly more defensive savvy against the super tough Northwestern attack.
Granted, these tweaks are coming because the Gophers have yet to really settle into consistent performances against any opponent that really tests them. But even teams that *need to* make tweaks don’t always do so. This coaching staff has shown an impressive amount of both creativity and humility in continuing to tweak the formation, broader rotation, and individual roles *with in* that rotation in an effort to put players in position to succeed. Now it’s on the players to step up and make it happen.
Playing to Competition or Playing to Space?
For years I’ve been known to (overly) speak to the Gopher’s tendency to play up and down to competition. Some specific matchups this season have helped me realize that it may more accurately be described as playing better based on how much space they’re given to operate.
When a team sits back in a disciplined defensive shape, the Gophers have almost always struggled to break the opponent down. They just haven’t quite had the level of off ball movement, passing, and combination play to stretch that defensive shape, find a gap, and make the pass that unlocks a chance on goal. Whereas when a team plays forward a bit more, they’re doing so with the confidence that their backline can handle a bit of pressure on its own – leaving more space for the Gophers to find gaps, passes, and opportunity.
This, in part, might be why Minnesota has traditionally shown their most spectacular offensive outputs against confident, attacking teams like Penn State (4-0) or Ohio State (4 straight goals after going down 2-0). But it’s also why they’re able to put up multiple goals against Indiana as the Hoosiers (somewhat mistakenly) assume they can “risk” playing forward against Minnesota when they much more typically sit in and go forward only when it’s an absolute slam dunk. But it’s also why against a team like Northwestern, which is able to play super attacking but also has the work rate to transition *back* into a defensive shape very quickly, games present both tests at once.
As conference play continues, keep an eye on who puts numbers forward and allows space behind their forward and midfield lines. Those games are likely where you’ll see Minnesota flow much better offensively.
Courage & Creativity
As tough of a test as facing #9 Northwestern was, some of the challenges Minnesota faced were fairly recognizable. Similar to games against Cal Poly, Nebraska, or Mississippi State, the Gophers sometimes seemed to be *waiting* for opportunities to come to them. Obviously against Northwestern some lack of confidence and willingness to attack should be expected. The Wildcats were attacking the hell out of the Gophers. They were throwing numbers forward and testing almost every member of the defensive unit at every turn. So while the comparison to previous matches isn’t exactly parallel, the offensive possessions still had the same vibe at times.
The times where Minnesota was able to break out of that trend was when individual players like Izzy Brown, Kenna Buisman and others decided to take an aggressive step forward and attack their individual matchup to break the rhythm of the game. Now that Minnesota has multiple tough tests under their belt, will we see some of their most courageous and creative players like Kenna, Izzy, Sophia Romine, Sophia Boman, and others start to bring some individual spark that can unlock some scoring opportunities. At their best, that courage and creativity from Gopher attackers has been what’s swung the flow of games.
The Path to the Top 8
Let’s boil things down to the most simple single point we can: Minnesota wants to make the Big Ten Tournament. That means they need to finish in the top 8 in conference play. In the past, that has essentially meant you need to get to a .500 record. For example, in 2018 they snuck into the field with a 5-5-1 conference record.
They currently sit at 1-2-0. Their remaining games are against: Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Rutgers, Maryland, Purdue, Illinois. My rough, undereducated off the cuff take would say Rutgers is a very tough test, Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Iowa are regular tough tests, and Maryland and Illinois are games MN should maybe be favored in. If you assume they’ll drop the Rutgers game (not a given, but still), then they’d likely need to go 4-2 in the other remaining Big Ten games to make it to the conference tournament. That means getting at least one result this weekend, against Michigan and Wisconsin is approaching a *must*.
And, in case you forgot – and if we want to take our homer attitude to the *max* – that 2018 team that snuck into Big Ten Tournament play with a 5-5-1 record took their chance, caught fire on the back of several key veteran leaders, and won the tournament championship.
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