The Gopher soccer team gave new Head Coach Erin Chastain a couple exhibition wins against North Dakota State and St Thomas but the first game that counts comes on Thursday against Baylor. To get ready for the first official game of the Chastain era in Minnesota, let’s run through how the Gophers have looked this preseason and take a quick glance at the non-conference slate.
How the team’s looked overall
The team has looked a bit more consistent and composed than I personally expected. There are lots of returning players and plenty of carry over on the staff, even with a new head coach, but I still expected slightly more random hiccups, honestly. Instead they’ve been essentially as composed and connected as we typically saw in previous years. Though the offensive shape took a bit of a hit in the first half against St Thomas as outside mids really got sucked into the center of the field a bit, giving up large swaths of wide space -- a fairly fixable issue at least.
They are largely making the simple pass and letting the run of play come to them and doing a solid job of at least getting *into* the final third/18 yard box even if the final pass/move/turn hasn’t always been there to turn the possession into a true chance on goal. But the difference from last year, or especially from 2019, is there are flashes of truly great finishes -- goals that will be goals no matter which keeper is trying to save them. Those flashes are enough for me to think they’ll get they’re scoring average back above 1 per game for the first time since 2018.
Defensively they haven’t really been tested yet, so it remains to be seen how some of these new starting defenders (Abi Frandsen and Kenz Langdok as your starting outside backs) will respond when going up against some of the speed demons they’ll face on opposing wings. A bit of a wildcard is in play at centerback as well, where returning starter Alana Dressely was expecting to shift inside. Dressely got tangled up with an attacker during the St Thomas game and her status is a bit uncertain. If she’s out for an extended stretch we may see freshman midfielder Elizabeth Overberg slide into the other centerback spot alongside returner Delany Stekr (where she got some early reps finishing out the match against the Tommies).
Either way expect the goals against average to creep up a tad from last spring (when they were one of the stingiest in the Big Ten) but maybe not by a ton. New holding midfielder Lauren Donovan has looked composed as hell as a freshman and is earning rave reviews from the staff (and from fellow/former badass blonde holding mid Emily Heslin when we saw her at the St Thomas match) so she may help stem some of the traffic heading the defense’s way.
The non-conference slate ahead
On paper, Baylor and Mississippi State are the harder challenges here. But Minnesota has had a bit of a “play to the competition problem” at times in both non-conference and Big Ten play. And, remember, even for young players who showed well in the exhibitions or who might show well in the early non-conference matches, there can be a bit of a shift as they have to start playing those second matches of the weekend and add more off-field responsibilities to their lives (read: classes start). So anything can happen.
But given the flashes of potential we’ve seen so far, and the mix of veterans who can offer some stability and new players work their way into the rotation, the Gophers should really go into every one of these non-conference games feeling like it not only could win, but *should* win. Aside from most of them being at home, they also get a bit of a break with no second game after the first road trip to Drake.
Still lots of room to grow
Part of the reason we’re so optimistic is because there is so much room to grow for this group, with a lot of it feeling -- frankly -- like low hanging fruit. Khyah Harper has already been impactful just with her work rate and her ability to find dangerous spaces in the box, but she’s not even looking super comfortable in the attack yet. Once she settles in a bit more and starts to get consistent shots on goal, she’ll draw even more attention and open things up for others. Izzy Brown looks a bit more comfortable but she’s also got more in the tank. Patricia Ward hasn’t even played yet (she’s not hurt, just needs to pass the fitness test so she can get cleared to play) and will at the very least add some stress for opposing defenders as they track her up top, let alone the possibility for some breakout potential following her return to the front line.
Sophia Boman has already looked ready to rock. Lauren Donovan is a god send at the 6. If both can play 90 minutes that could offer some serious stability and consistency for the entire rotation. Remember that with so much (necessary, considering two games a weekend) subbing at the college level, there are essentially reset periods every 15-25 minutes where you have to re-establish a rhythm and flow. But if the back line and the spine of your midfield stay consistent it makes that re-establishment period quicker and easier.
Chrisa Van Loon had maybe the most on-field individual growth from her first touch to her last, in pre-season. She and the subs in the NDSU game came in with some understandable jitters during their first minutes in the Gopher uniform, but by the end of that game she was sending in nice left footed service into the box and taking on defenders. Then she continued that improvement against St Thomas and got even more confident and dangerous. That kind of game by game progression is downright impressive, even if it was essentially just her getting back to her own personal standards she was playing at during her freshman year at Oral Roberts. If she can be the player we’ve seen so far, or even more, she will be a steal of a pickup off the transfer portal for Minnesota.
The remade backline has looked solid again (Abi and Kenz looking good), albeit without being tested much these first two matches. Now we have to wait and see if they go from 50 percent brand new across the back four to 75 percent new if Dressely’s injury is serious. Either way, Overberg may need to play against Baylor while Dressely works her way back so look to see how well she does between Stekr and Langdok as the right centerback. At the very least she’s surrounding by vets on three sides (those two plus Plaschko in goal -- who we can’t wait to see in more *action* against Baylor after a quiet two exhibitions).
What to watch for this weekend
On Thursday against Baylor, let’s honestly just hope no one else gets injured. A Minnesotan who had a two year stint with Baylor told us the team took great pride in having the most fouls (or was it cards?) in the entire country. So, you know, let’s see if some soccer also gets played? But seriously it will be a good test to see how players new to the rotation respond to super physical play. As much as I’m giving the Big 12 a hard time, the Big Ten isn’t exactly dainty in its own right. So facing some physicality early on will be a good learning experience. Something tells me this year’s Gophers won’t have a problem scrapping it up, a bit. They actually have pretty good size across the board and some solid grit.
Illinois Chicago is a good Horizon League team that traditionally scores about 1.5 goals a game and gives up anywhere from .5-1 per game. Minnesota should probably be aiming for a shutout defensively and trying to get more than one goal on the board if they want good momentum heading into the first regular season road trip.
Where to watch
Come out to Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium to watch in person! Or, if you can’t make it, watch the broadcast on BTN Plus, where I once again will be doing the play by play and, this fall, will be joined by former all-everything Gopher midfielder (and one-time Matt interview subject) Josee Stiever as the color commentator!
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