Last week, the Gophers rebounded from three straight losses to drop NDSU 4-0, but things won’t exactly get any easier as they kickoff the conference schedule this weekend. Now that we have a decent sample size, let’s take a deeper look at Minnesota’s squad as they head into the gauntlet of Big Ten play.
First, both the eye test and the stats show that the Gophers are shooting less than they did a year ago. Over the course of last season, they averaged nearly 16 shots per game. This year, that’s dropped to just shy of 12. For a team like Minnesota, the problem isn’t necessarily just that fewer shots mean fewer chances to score. It’s also that the opposing defense doesn’t feel the need to pressure the player with the ball quite as much, because Gophers have been more hesitant to shoot it even when they’re deep in the opposing box. When defends lay back a bit, that clogs the passing lanes and makes it harder for players off the ball to find space with an off-ball run.
That’s contributed to players like April Bockin (who led the country in assists for portions of last season) to hold on to the ball a bit longer. Combined with the hesitancy of some younger players like Patricia Ward to pull the trigger, this has led and already team-focused, pass-first lineup to become almost paralized in the final third. It would be great to see Molly Fiedler and Emily Heslin fire from distance. With a few matches under their belt to build some chemistry, I wouldn’t be surprised if shots start flying a bit more. Who knows? Maybe Makenzie Langdok’s shot from distance against NDSU that put the Gophers on top may in and of itself spur some long distance howlers* (‘Howler’ is a positive term in this space. #PositiveHowler)
There are times when the lack of precision and passing in the final third is made up for with quality chances off the Gophers’ press. But to this point - as might be expected - the press has been inconsistent. The coaching staff was quick to remind the team after a hard fought game against Stanford that when the press is on - as it was that day - they can truly compete and outplay anyone.
The lack of a consistent press and the mix of so many new faces on the back line has led to some quality for opposing offenses. While the Gopher defense suffocated opponents into low quality chances (33.3 percent shots on goal for opponents in 2017), they’ve let a few more clean chances make it to the keeper so far this year (41.7 percent).
Maddie Nielsen has performed pretty well, considering the circumstances (75 percent save percentage vs Kailee Sharp’s 70 percent last year) but there are still plenty of instances where a simple mistake leads to goal that really could have (or should have) saved. Still, Nielsen only just eclipsed ten starts for her career and she has made some nice saves. Going through those moments in the non-conference slate might be a bit of a silver lining. Now it’s on the backline and Nielsen to tighten things up.
For all the talk about how they look on the field, where Minnesota lands in the postseason will largely depend on the numbers (and random people sitting in a room selecting teams, but we can't control them). Last year, they were dangerous. They scored well. They defended well. And they ended up JUST outside of the field for the national tournament.
As they head into Big Ten play, the Gophers look like they’re in decent shape. The preseason poll, current standings, and RPI standings should - combined - show you how hard it is to judge teams part-way through the season. Michigan State has loaded up wins against “cupcakes” so the standings inflate their chances. Purdue was picked in the lower half of the preseason poll but their early results show they may be for real. And with games against Illinois and Northwestern this weekend to finish out their 7 game home stand, Minnesota may in a position to solidify themselves as contenders if they can get some results.
Friday, September 14th at 6PM – Home vs Illinois (Big Ten Plus)
Sunday, September 16th at 1PM – Home vs Northwestern (Big Ten Plus)
The Gophers have now lost three games in a row after falling just short in an impressive battle with top ranked Stanford. The good news? Each of the losses really was a bit unique, and it’s possible the young lineup for Minnesota may come out of non-conference play a bit more grizzled and ready to battle in Big Ten conference play. But first, they have to get past NDSU – and a whole slew of Minnesotans – Friday night.
We talked to Alli Lipsher (Director of Goalkeeping) and Celina Nummerdor (sophomore midfielder) to talk about their careers, how to get things moving in the right direction, and getting ready for NDSU. They were super gracious with their time. Give it a watch and a share!
Minnesota 0, DePaul 1
Thursday, August 30 (Full live tweet thread)
I’m not going to lie to you: there was not much to celebrate from this one. Minnesota generally played OK. But DePaul came in with a game plan and executed the hell out of it. They were incredibly disciplined on defense – including a clear strategy to trap April Bockin with two or three defenders any time she got the ball – and they made the most of a good chance to put themselves on the board.
One silver lining on the night was the welcome home DePaul Head Coach Erin Chastain received. Her name litters the Gopher Soccer record books and we had to fight off a big crowd of friends just to interview her (below).
Minnesota 1, Stanford 2
Sunday, September 2 (Full live tweet thread)
If someone looked at the Gophers results week to week and thought these two game were similar – because they were both losses – they could not be more wrong. It’s unfortunate that Minnesota seems to play down to their competition at times, but this game showed they can also absolutely play up.
They were active. They played their high press as a unit. They moved well off the ball. When Stanford seemed content to kick the ball around their back line, Minnesota pushed forward and started making them feel uncomfortable. Sure, the Gophers continued their habit of giving up a preventable goal and ultimately lost, but they also fought back ferociously and scored a beautiful goal in the run of play against a team that hadn’t given one up in MORE THAN A YEAR (I’m sorry for shouting).
Friday, September 7th at 6PM – Home vs North Dakota State (Big Ten Plus)
The Gophers came home after two opening wins on the road to split their opening weekend. In their comeback win against Ole Miss, the Gophers looked dangerous right from the kickoff. Despite a simple goalkeeping gaff that put them behind 0-1 early on, it was one of the best start to finish performances we’ve seen over the past few seasons. Then, against the goons from Washington State (I’m sorry, but their play bordered on unsportsmanlike at best), the Gophers failed to adjust to a brutally physical game and fell 0-2.
Now, the team has a short turnaround to a Thursday night matchup against DePaul. We sat down with Assistant Coach Molly Rouse and Captain Emily Peterson to talk about moving past a rough game and working so many new players into the rotation. They both had fantastic insights. Be sure to give it a watch!
Minnesota 2, Ole Miss 1
Friday, August 24 (Full live tweet thread)
As soon as things kicked off on Friday night, Minnesota looked dangerous. April Bockin was dialed in, the entire front six had great chemistry and movement, and the Gophers seemed destined to put in a dominant performance. After an unfortunate slip up by keeper Maddie Nielsen, the Gophers kept their composure and kept the pressure up.
Eventually, Celina Nummerdor put the Gophers level early in the second half with a nice clean up goal in the Ole Miss box.
Then, after the game was stretched into extra time, the Gophers kept things going. Typically, the break at full time can lead to some weird and uneven play at the start of extra time. But Minnesota looked really sharp. And Megan Gray kept her positioning as April Bockin danced through the Ole Miss defense, eventually smashing the winner into the upper net.
Minnesota 0, Washington State 2
Sunday, August 26 (Full live tweet thread)
I’m not going to lie. This game was pretty gross. But give Washington State some credit. They were fast. They were strong. And they played super physical. The Gophers actually combined ok throughout the match. But having so many new players in starting and rotation roles meant many of the Gophers were experiencing a brutal, physical game for the first time.
So the only real takeaway for Minnesota is to use this game as a learning experience. As former Gopher stars Kellie McGahn and Julianna Gernes said during our halftime show, this won’t be the last game where an opponent tests the refs and it won’t be the last game where the refs refuse to keep a game under control.
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