Obviously it’s way too early to know for sure who will start for the Gophers this fall, but after a few months of spring soccer we know just enough to be dangerous. So, here is the second in our “way too early” breakdowns of who might start for the Gophers this upcoming season. Following Twitter’s instructions, we’ll keep building from the back and look at the defenders.
(If you missed the first breakdown about the Gopher goalkeepers, it earned a review on Twitter that read simply “Hmmm” that has now been deleted. So, in other words, it must be gooood.)
There’s some good news and there’s some bad news. Let’s start with the bad news: the Gophers will only return one starter on the backline for 2018. The good news? That defender is really good.
Last year’s backline was imposing. It was amazing. It made opponents crumble to the ground – literally. The Gophers had a .42 Goals Allowed Average in non-conference play, 1.05 GAA in Big Ten games, and .89 GAA overall. That put them around the middle of the pack for the Big Ten. But in Head Coach Stefanie Golan’s system, defenders aren’t just standing their ground. They’re also required to be incredibly proficient in distributing the ball and serving as the foundation of an attack based on quick passing and cutting that stretches the other teams’ defense.
Maddie Gaffney, a seriously top-shelf outside back, is now graduated (though you can watch her on the Twin Stars in the WPSL this summer). Tori Burnett, a bruising center back with great touch is also graduated (though you can watch her and fellow Gopher alums Sydney Squires and Jenny Clark in the MASL men’s league this summer – trust me, we’ll follow up on that one). And Emily Peterson, one of the captains for 2018, got injured in Italy this spring and will probably miss the whole season. The staff raves about Peterson’s impact on the team both on and off the field and they’re hopeful she can return.
BUT, there is some good news. Nikki Albrecht and her world class top-knot are back and ready to anchor the back line in 2018. The Gophers are hoping she can help bring a new crop of starters along quickly in order to duplicate some of last year’s defensive prowess this season.
If the season started tomorrow, the back line would probably be:
Patricia Ward: an incredible athlete who has such a killer instinct that coaches have said she could lead the team in goals. If the team had their choice, they’d probably player her up top and let her wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Instead, she may be tasked with shutting down opposing offenses. Ward sometimes had some issues getting back on defense after making runs down the flank this spring, but that’s to be expected for a freshman playing out of position on the backline. When she was on the ball, her confidence and ability were abundantly clear. Don’t be surprised if she gets moved up the field after training camp opens this fall.
Athena Kuehn (above): a well-rounded sophomore who could probably play anywhere on the field. Kuehn played in every game last year as a freshman, but mostly as a center midfielder. One of the first things you notice about Kuehn is her ability to use her frame and get in between the opponent and the ball. Her instincts are strong and her game is well rounded. She’s transitioned to center back this spring and she might be the kind of stabilizing force that could help the young Gophers squad stay competitive this fall. The only way she moves off the back line is if the team can afford to start her elsewhere. More on that in a second.
Nikki Albrecht: a star player on the back line. All she’s done in her two years with the team is start from day one, make the All Big Ten Freshman team, and earn multiple call ups to the US Soccer Youth National Teams. She spent her first two seasons bombing down the left wing as an outside back. Her speed, tenacity, and athletic ability made her an absolute headache for opposing teams. And her fitness let her track back and stifle opponents on the defensive end. Now, as the new anchor and center back on the defensive line, the Gophers will rely on Albrecht’s strength – both in the air and on the ground – and her communication skills to keep her teammates organized.
Marisa Windingstad (right): a junior this fall looking to cement a larger role. Windingstad made it into six games last year and seemed to hold her own again in the spring matches we were able to catch. But the Big Ten can be brutal and the opponents this spring were mostly Division 2 schools. We probably haven’t seen enough of her to make a solid judgement. But she’ll have the chance to earn her spot once training camp starts, even if it means playing some minutes off the bench.
The four players listed above largely served as the “starters” this spring (several games were played with 10 to a side so the backline sometimes had three instead of four), but that lineup is far from cemented. Any of the four players below could also work their way into a significant role.
Megan Gray: an athletic defender who can also play farther up the field. When Coach Golan announced her incoming class, she talked about Gray as someone who could push for minutes as a midfielder or forward. But if Gray can come in and learn the system quickly, my sense is the Gophers would rather move Ward up top.
Delaney Stekr: an imposing defender with tremendous potential. Stekr seems to have the best chance to push for a spot in the rotation. She’s more of a center back, but Golan is quick to remind us that jumping right into a center back role as a freshman is incredibly tough. It might be that she works her way in at outside back and Kuehn keeps the center back spot warm for her when she’s ready to shift over later in her career. But starting in the middle next to Albrecht (so Kuehn can shift into holding midfield role) isn’t entirely out of the question if immediately impresses.
Alana Dressely: a lefty who can cover ground and compete. Dressely, Gray, Stekr, and Ward are all true freshman with a chance to play from day one on the backline. If that doesn’t tell you how wide open the defensive spots are, I don’t know what would. If Dressely (like the others) can come in and show an early spark, it will give Golan a lot of flexibility to shift Kuehn or Ward farther up field. This class really has a unique chance to step in and claim minutes.
Catherine Billings: a junior this fall looking to earn some minutes. Billings was essentially the third center back this spring. Because Kuehn is really more of a midfielder and the other defenders largely play outside, it seems like Billings could cement herself as a backup who pushes for playing time in the middle. She hasn’t played many minutes, but she’s constantly talking tactics with the staff and seemed eminently coachable so I wouldn’t write her off.
Albrecht and Kuehn are both sure-thing starters, but maybe not as defenders. The safe bet may be for Kuehn and Albrecht to start at center back with Stekr and Gray earning their way into starting roles as outside backs – allowing Patricia Ward to play up top and wreak havoc.
But if three of Stekr, Gray, Dressely, and Windingstad really step up their game Kuehn MIGHT get the chance to shift into a hold midfield spot just in front of the defense (which would let Emily Heslin shift into a more attacking role next to Molly Fiedler – stop me, I’m spoiling next week’s midfield preview!)
In general, no matter what the lineup, I could see more rotation back there than we saw lastyear (virtually none). Don’t be surprised if defenders actually get subbed on and off in the exhibition and non-conference schedule.