The Gopher Soccer team returned to the field for the first competitive game in more than a year and came away with a tie with the Nebraska Huskers. It’s tough to know exactly where Minnesota’s ceiling is after a 0-0 double overtime draw, but they made abundantly clear that they’ve raised their floor tremendously compared to their last full season in 2019.
You’re starting who, where?
I don’t want to say that Head Coach Stef Golan likes to toy with opposing teams and the media a bit, but she has a funny habit of listing players in position groups that are -- essentially -- just not true. I won’t complain because it always gives us a few moments throughout the season when a surprise lineup change here or there adds a spark of curiosity. It just so happens that all of those moments seemed to happen all at once when the starting lineup was announced just before kickoff on Sunday.
Alana Dressely seems to be working her way back from an injury so she couldn’t play outside back. Seemingly at least in part because of that, two natural wingers (Patricia Ward and Abi Frandsen) started at the outside back spots and looked incredibly at home. Megan Gray, who I’ve suggested for nearly every other field position previously *other* than holding midfield, started there and had arguably the best game of anyone on either team.
The team used a 4-4-2 formation (that played fairly similar to their familiar 4-3-3 with midfielder Celina Nummerdor drifting fairly high into an almost false 9/center striker space) that wasn’t shocking considering Nebraska’s 3-5-2 formation that can force action wide. But was a little more surprising was to see Katie Duong and Sophia Boman, two immensely talented central midfielders, work *so* wide for much of the game. Boman ended up having some nice service into the box for Kenna Buisman and Duong roasted a few Huskers out on the wing so all’s well that ends well (and, again, it may have been in direct response to this particular game’s needs).
And other than the fact that Megan Plaschko got to see minutes off the bench as a keeper, which has never(?) happened in our time covering the Gophers, Minnesota used a somewhat shorter bench than usually as well. Katie Koker saw the most minutes off the bench at right back due due to Frandsen nursing some wear and tear. Sadie Harper and Arianna Del Moral had nice minutes in the front six. But by and large, players not only battled through the full 90 minutes of regulation, but also two over time periods. Both Nebraska and Minnesota had 6 players go the full 110 possible minutes.
Megan Gray, born holding midfielder (apparently)
The short summary of this game would be that essentially all of the many lineup choices Golan made seemed to work the way they were supposed to, the Gophers just couldn’t quite finish. Both wingers-turned-outside-backs looked the part in the back line, and not just like they were waiting for the first chance to bomb down the line and work the final third. Delaney Stekr and Athena Kuehn made for a stable center back pairing. Kenna Buisman and Kenzie Langdok working the wings as Nummerdor pushed into the center attacking space led to some solid chances.
But no choice paid off more dramatically or obviously than Megan Gray in the holding midfield spot. She’s not the most obvious choice from a physical perspective (which is maybe why she hasn’t played there for Minnesota before). She doesn’t have bruising physicality or an intimidating defensive presence, but she just knows how to play so so well. She made what felt like a dozen interceptions, maybe a half dozen shoulder to shoulder tackles, and seemingly endless amounts of quick, smart passes that nearly always went where they needed to go to keep possession moving.
More than anything Gray looked completely comfortable playing her role. When given the space to push the ball forward following a steal, she excelled at finding the first pass but also in knowing where she’d be most dangerous in the attack. Playing the rest of the front six essentially all within her field of vision seemed to fully unleash her field awareness and decision making on a whole other level. If she, Duong, and Boman can all essentially play 90 minutes a game at the levels they showed against Nebraska, it could keep the Gophers in the game against virtually anyone in the Big Ten.
Goal keeper split
As far as I can remember, the Gophers have never done much (or any) sharing of keeper minutes. There has traditionally been a starter who plays until she is hurt or unable to play. In the opening match this season, Megan Plaschko came on at half time -- spelling starter Maddie Nielsen and earning her first minutes for Minnesota.
It’s the kind of decision that makes even more sense when you consider that Maddie Nielsen is rumored to be coming back next year for her “bonus COVID eligibility” that every NCAA player gets this spring and last fall. After Ana Aguado and Megan Plaschko have worked their butts off to grow as keepers in the program, waiting an entire additional season before either of them seeing any minutes could get a bit untenable.
Long story short: I could see a keeper share making sense. Neither Nielsen or Plaschko faced incredibly tough challenges but each was asked to make a few key decisions and saves to keep the shutout alive. For a team that has struggled to score at times -- and certainly struggled to build big leads that create more of a cushion for keepers to work with -- even the smallest mistake can put the game at risk. So seeing consistent keeper play for 110 straight minutes was a great sign.
Chance creation and finishing
Despite the long list of silver linings to be taken away from a scoreless draw, one area that continues to need some improvement is finishing. Kenna Buisman helped created a slew of chances, both on the end of service from midfielders like Boman and Gray and also as a target on a late corner kick, but wasn’t quite able to get them all on frame -- though her header that got blocked by a Husker defender was a thing of beauty. Katie Duong’s service on corner kicks gave a bit more spice to the Gophers’ set piece arsenal than previous seasons as well. So chance creation was at least adequate, considering how long it’s been since the players have been able to test their chemistry, timing, and instincts against another team.
The rosey outlook would be that the ability to create the chances themselves matters more long term because individual players may hone their finishing as the season goes on. The counter attacks that started with Meg Gray interceptions were consistently leading to quick combinations that quickly carved through the center of the field. Ambitious service from Delaney Stekr from the back line to the right wing and from the right wing to Kenna Buisman helped stretch the opposing defense at times and understandably failed to land at others.
The more cynical view would be that the Gophers don’t necessarily have stone cold finishers ready to take advantage of chances they’re able to create. But at this point, after solid combination play and tons of rust to shake off in the opening match, I think that conclusion would be a bit premature. A few ambitious chances from distance showed a willingness to take risks. Continually aggressive pushes forward led to plenty of set piece chances that were at the very least well executed -- even if they didn’t lead to goals this time around.
There may not be a double digit goal scorer on this year’s team, but at least in the early stages it feels as if they’ll be fully capable of scoring enough to establish themselves as a competitive Big Ten team this year.
Next Up the Michigan Cup
This coming weekend the Gophers will be facing Michigan on Thursday night and Michigan State on Sunday -- barring some details yet to be settled about venue/kickoff time.
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