Minnesota is coming off maybe their most complete win of the past few seasons, after beating Penn State 4-1, with the opportunity to beat expectations and climb into the Big Ten Tournament field (top 8 teams qualify) as they approach their final five regular season matchups. For a team with a new head coach and tons of new contributors, it shouldn’t be shocking that the fall 2021 campaign has been one of subtle ups and downs as players get more comfortable in their roles within the new system. But a few things about the Gophers’ recent performances make me think this squad may be poised for a real run in these last five games.
Contributors & Multipliers: different ways to impact the game
So often when we’re trying to predict what the starting group or broader rotation might looks like for the Gophers we may be projecting what plays can contribute as individuals in given roles. Will Lauren Donovan be able to immediately settle in as a holding midfielder? Can Sophia Boman continue to grow as a central midfielder after coming in as an every minute player as a freshman? Will Izzy Brown add some scoring punch for a team that desperately needs it?
But soccer is, perhaps as much or more than any sport, a game of chemistry and combination play. Sure, the very *very* best players can individually make things happen from almost nothing. But even they make their greatest impact when surrounded by and combining with teammates who can amplify their talents even further. And *those* players -- who can amplify their teammates abilities and bring the best out of them -- don’t just add talent to the overall team they *multiple* the overall talent on the field by specifically bringing out the best in others.
The two players that have stuck out most in this role for Minnesota have been Megan Gray and Maddie Baker. If anyone wants to go back and watch the last 70 minutes of the Ohio State game, THAT is Maddie Baker at her best. She was redirecting balls in the air, running give-and-go combinations with virtually everyone, and -- more than anything -- bringing out better combination play in *others* by being such a good combination player herself. It’s like when Ricky Rubio came over to play for the Timberwolves and all of the sudden half the guys on the team were passing more (and more creatively) because that kind of mentality and style was contagious.
In Megan Gray’s case, it’s actually been the return to full health of Lauren Donovan (who’s now reclaimed her 90 minute a game role as holding midfielder) that’s pushed Meg back into a more attacking role. And, given her own ability to play big minutes, it’s actually sort of weirdly narrowed the Gophers rotation after it had been expanding for several weeks as players learned the system and earned Head Coach Erin Chastain’s trust. BUT WE DIGRESS.
The main impact on the field has been Meg getting comfortable in that right midfield role and *really* getting comfortable and confident in how she uses her space and where/when she stretches the boundaries of that space to pursue the ball and/or pursue combination opportunities with teammates. She has never played more confident and, as a result, she’s never been more dangerous. Her effort and scrappiness have always been there (and are definitely *still* there) but she’s also added a new level of confidence on the ball that, in addition to her off-ball movement, has made her even more deadly AND a perfect combiner for her teammates.
Buisman Back Up-Top
The rotation has been changing game to game both as players earn larger roles (and as players have to miss time) mostly in ways that have either been necessary or just fairly organic. Patricia Ward had settled into a role that was split between midfield and forward, but then she had to shift to outside back when Kenzie Langdok was out. And when Langdok came back, it shifted Ward into the attack again. But this time, for the last two games, she’s been largely sticking at outside mid as Kenna Buisman has spent more time to her old stomping grounds on the forward line instead.
Part of that is possibly a reaction to Maddie Baker still recovering from an Ankle sprain (as is Khyah Harper). But part of it is also a proactive decision by the coaching staff. Even though Buisman was able to make an impact at outside mid with her physical defense and high work rate, she wasn’t always able to find ways into dangerous spots (or at least not into a ton of scoring opportunities) from that position. Whereas Patricia Ward, even as she admits to us that having to play a true outside mid role vs a wing role is an adjustment, somewhat organically found her way into scoring positions from outside mid *while also* unleashing Buisman to get into more dangerous position as the forward.
That’s probably both over-simplifying and mis-calculating the positioning decisions being made to some degree, but one thing that’s been consistent from the forward line this year in the 4-4-2 formation is that those two players up top have consistently been getting wide. Izzy Brown finds width a ton even though people may think of her as a classic central striker -- same for Maddie Baker. And in the shift from a 4-3-3 of the past to a 4-4-2, I’m not sure fans of the team would have necessarily predicted that.
But it’s meant that when the Gophers possession/combination/attacking is *on*, players are working to the strong side to offer combination options, weak side mids and attackers are making backside and trailing runs as scoring or clean up options, and Minnesota actually looks pretty damn dangerous in the final third. I have put *in writing* -- multiple times -- that this team would be able to score better than people think. But even I, if asked if the Gophers would lead the Big Ten in scoring during conference play at any point this season, would have never taken that bet.
No Winning Streaks (or losing streaks, really)
Forgive me if I’m just rehashing my “half empty or half full’ framing from the previous written Gopher piece, but when looking at the MN results it struck me that they haven’t had a single winning streak yet this year (this may have even happened *while* I was calling the Penn State game, I think). But it’s just as notable that they haven’t really had a losing streak. Yes Michigan State and then Rutgers, but the games also were completely different animals.
And the Rutgers game, even as a loss, really did seem to unlock a certain level of confidence from the squad. I mean, the Scarlet Knights just went out and CRUSHED Michigan 4-1. They are really good. And Minnesota, even if they weren’t necessarily matching them in terms of possession, were absolutely matching them in terms of engagement, effort, and spirit -- AND they kept it to a one goal game.
More to the point, it’s clear the coaching staff has found a way to ensure that game to game growth happens both at the individual and team level. There are, I’m sure, a half dozen different ways they do this but one that has stuck out in so many conversations with players and staff this year has been the way they use game film. There is a delicate balance to a film session. How do you keep players engaged and paying attention the whole time? How do you call out mistakes/corrections fairly so that players don’t think there are favorites that aren’t being held accountable? How do you make sure it’s not just a low-lights-a-thon (all things that have gone wrong) and it’s also about giving good examples that show a player a clear and understandable situation where a recovery run helped stop a counter attack (we see you, Meg Gray) or a back post run helped make sure that IF a rebound happened someone was there, even if the rebound never *did* happen (we see you, Kenna Buisman).
I only bring this up because 1) the game to game growth from individuals and the team has been *very* evident this year and 2) just the number of times players have said the WORD “film” has been astronomical, let alone the specific examples they’ve given me for how it’s been impactful. For Head Coach Erin Chastain, it’s also a credit to the players:
“They’re so checked in. And they want to learn.”
(full answer about game to game progression in the video below)
The Big Ten Is Hard (particularly this year)
We asked Erin Chastain (tagged below as Chad because I sometimes tweet post game videos while biking home, stopping on the shoulder of Larpenter Ave and typing quickly like a weirdo) about how the Big Ten has changed from her playing days, or assistant coaching days and what has stayed the same (starting around 1:27 in the video below).
“I think on any given day I really believe that anyone can win. And I think our team believes that.”
So as the Gophers approach their final five games of the year, they certainly know they *can* win each of these games. What it will come down to is whether they can show some growth in their mentality and focus to turn their big 4-1 win against Penn State into the start of a run rather than just a nice win they can look back on (see: Ohio State, Baylor, etc) even as it’s followed by less impressive results.
In order to get into the Big Ten Tournament field, they need to get into the top 8 (top 4 seeds host the first round, they’re currently in 10th, FWIW). That is absolutely possible and, based on how they’ve looked, I think pretty probable. I actually think it’s not bonkers to go even a step further. Everyone at the top of the Big Ten still has multiple super hard games left on their schedule. The middle of the table in the Big Ten is *always* super jumbled up. Even when Minnesota had their worst year in program history in 2019 they were actually in possible contention for the conference tournament almost to the very end.
I think this team showed something special against Penn State -- not because of how good or bad Penn State is, or because Minnesota scored 4 goals, or any of that. There was something just a little different in their body language, their confidence on the ball, and the *way* they played. The Gophers went from a team that battled super hard and played with lots of grit against Rutgers to a team that had straight up *swagger* against Penn State. I absolutely think expectations should be high after this team showed a high ceiling for long stretches against both Ohio State and Penn State.
Coach Chastain rightfully said that anyone *could* win any game. I think Minnesota should go into these games (even against a really really good Purdue team on the road) thinking that they *should* win. Not in an arrogant way, but in a “why the hell shouldn’t we win this game?!” kind of way. How the Gophers finish won’t be a question of talent, it will be a question of focus, engagement, and mindset. Even if they have bumps along the road in these final five games I say they get 3+ wins. If they’re locked in, and playing somewhere in the neighborhood of how they looked against Penn State, I honestly think they could win them all and host in the first round.
And even if they don’t go on some miracle, Iowa in spring 2021, type run to finish the regular season, I think this team is going to be frisky as hell if/when they make the Big Ten Tournament field.
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