Minnesota has had stumbles along the way, but the Gophers are heading back to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2018 with hopes of upsetting top seeded Michigan State in the opening round in East Lansing. As they prepare for Sunday’s matchup against one of the best teams in the country, let’s take a look at how the Gophers may matchup against the Spartans – a team, due to scheduling quirks, they have not faced this season.
More negative take
The on-paper analysis of this game is that it’s a tremendously difficult game for the Gophers. To put it in perspective, Minnesota’s most impressive result this fall may be their dramatic road tie at Rutgers (a top ten team at the time). And while Rutgers is a very strong team that’s tough to break down, their 9 goals allowed in conference play is *triple* that of the Michigan State Spartans. Minnesota has given up 11 goals in conference play. Michigan State has given up 7 *all season*. We’ll get into more detailed analysis later on in the piece but the simple take away is that Michigan State is 11th in RPI, 6th in the coaches poll, and are playing on home turf. If Minnesota pulls off a result in this game Erin Chastain deserves a parade.
More optimistic take
Minnesota has almost literally nothing to lose in this game. No outsiders would pick them to win. But the Gophers, even during their most brutal seasons during the Equal Time era, have always shown a flicker of ability to take on top teams. In 2019, their *first* victory of the year was against #14 ranked NC State. In that 2018 Big Ten Tournament we mentioned previously, they squeaked in with a five hundred record (sound familiar?) and ran through the field of ranked opponents to win the title. This year, despite not being able to close each game out, they built leads or seriously competed with TCU, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Rutgers.
When they are playing with confidence, they combine well, they force opponents to feel uncomfortable, and they score some pretty sick goals. It’s not always easy to predict *when* the Gophers will play at their best. But *when* they play at their best, they can run with nearly anyone.
Break it down - Michigan State defense
Ok. We mentioned it earlier and we’ll dive in a bit more here: the Michigan State defense is absurd. Keeper Lauren Kozal is 12th in the country in save percentage (.877) and in conference play she’s been even stingier (.917… good lord). The defense as a whole has the lowest goals allowed average in the country and in conference play that’s translated into only 3 goals scored against the Spartans in 10 games. So…where is the window for success here?
Two things jump out based on their statistical profile. First, they have not given up almost any corner kicks. And while we trust the Spartans to be able to shape many aspects of the run of play on Sunday, it’s hard for us to believe that the Gophers absurd (borderline comical) level of corner kick creation will be entirely stunted. Second, Michigan State had the second most yellow cards in conference play. If the Gophers are even remotely successful defensively and keep this game close, a random errant foul here or corner kick there is about as good a shot as MN may need with such a lethal set piece weapon as Gabbie Cesarone (the team’s leading scorer almost *entirely* off set piece production) in place.
Break it down - Michigan State attack
The Spartans pass and possess *super* well. Their floor, in terms of possession, is about 55 percent. Their floor, in terms of passing accuracy, is just above 70 percent. And both of those numbers are regularly more like two thirds and over 80 percent respectively. That disciplined and accurate passing helps them string together build up play that leads to chances close to goal (average chance is from about 16 yards out) and they get into that attacking position a lot (4th most shots in Big Ten play.)
They are going to be a seriously tough test for the Gopher back line. One possible silver lining: they, like MN, are a pretty damn low offside team. This isn’t a perfect metric, but offside calls can sometimes signal the frequency with which a team pushes the line and tries to get behind the opposing defense (an area MN has been vulnerable at times). If that’s not a weapon the Spartans choose to turn to very frequently, it *might* give the Gopher backline more time to establish their shape and focus on the game in front of them rather than consistently worrying about getting beat and drifting back out of fear for the long ball going over the top.
I’ll be in East Lansing to cover the game in person, including a pregame show around noon featuring former pro Dani Foxhoven Young, State News reporter Nick Lundberg, and (hopefully) former Spartan captain Kristelle Yewah! Live tweets will follow, but let me know in the meantime if there is anything else you’d like to see (a specific mom for What Do The Moms Think, etc).
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