Full disclosure: we started the “way too early” series back when it was still way too early to predict the Gophers starting lineup for 2018 (with goalkeepers and defenders). Now after covering a bit of other colleges, WPSL, and the pros over the summer, it’s actually right on time. Technically, the Gophers have already started camp. So, before we jump in to officially watch the new squad, we’re going to fudge the rules and rush out a combined midfielders and forwards prediction, so we can get to the actual soccer.
Long story short: the Gophers front six were prolific last season. Though the Gophers offense slowed at times during the grind of the Big Ten season, they still finished the year ranked in the top 20 in goals per game (2.16 goals/game, 19th). Head Coach Stefanie Golan’s offensive system is built on spacing, passing, and stretching the defense to create high quality chances from high efficiency spots in the box. Two of the absolute best at stretching the defense and making that final pass were Molly Fiedler and April Bockin, both of whom finished in the top 50 nationally in assists – with Bockin finishing 3rd – and both of whom will be back this year.
But the only other sure-thing starter returning is Emily Heslin. Heslin joins Bockin and Fiedler as a returning starter in the front six and all three have real All Big Ten quality talent. And all of them will need to perform that way, because the Gophers lost their top two scorers from last season in Sydney Squires and Julianna Gernes.
Emily Heslin: Heslin is a force. She covers ground, connects the backline to the attackers, and patrols the middle of the field with absolutely no fear. There was talk early in the spring season of moving Heslin up the field a bit to let her and Fiedler play something like duel attacking midfielders. But, as enticing as that was, three new starters on the backline almost certainly require Heslin to play as a bruising holding midfielder who can snuff out the opposing attack before it gets too dangerous. In Golan’s 4-3-3, Heslin is the central cog that connects all three lines. It was borderline criminal that she didn’t get some post-season recognition last year. If she plays to her potential, there is no way that happens again. Especially if she keeps hitting absurd free kicks.
Molly Fiedler: The Gophers offense can be so free-flowing that it’s tough to follow all six players when they’re really in a groove – especially when watching the game from seats towards the top of the stadium. If you really want to appreciate Molly Fiedler’s game, you need to watch from the front row. Even compared to other top athletes on the squad, Fiedler has a quickness that absolutely jumps out at you. Her ability to glide into space and make a pinpoint pass make her a perfect fulcrum in the attacking third as the three strikers move into position in the opponents’ box. Last year she scored 1 goal of her own while tallying 8 assists. Don’t be surprised if both of those numbers climb a bit. Also, a truly great moment.
Celina Nummerdor: Nummerdor is a rising Sophomore who earned major minutes early on last year, eventually settling into a nice bench role. She sometimes played a bit higher up field in her first year, but expect her to fight for the third starting midfield spot in 2018. The coaching staff is quick to praise her development and the flashes she showed last year definitely demonstrated a bit of potential. I’d expect her to come into camp with a fair amount of confidence after seeing action in 14 games out of the gate last year.
TJ McKendrick: If Heslin were to move up the into more of an attacking role, it will be because McKendrick absolutely blew the coaches away in camp. She showed some ability to connect in the midfield during the spring season and she shows glimpses of vision and passing that will be valuable. McKendrick is less of a gritty holding midfielder and more someone who relies on touch and passing to keep the offense flowing. Expect her to carve out a decent role off the bench so Heslin can shift upfield to add some variety to the offensive attack.
Ariana Del Moral: Del Moral is the perfect example of someone growing into their role over the spring season. Her length and height make her an intriguing prospect, and by spring season you could catch a few moments where she really started looking confident on the ball. I’d expect her to at the very least be used to spell both Heslin and Fielder for short spurts. If she comes into camp a bit stronger and able to show some grit in the middle third, she may even push for a starting spot.
April Bockin: She’s quick. She’s got great touch. But more than anything, when April Bockin has the ball anywhere in the opponents’ half, you know she might be able to do something truly special. She spent last season feeding the goal-scoring machines of Squires and Gernes, so how will Bockin perform as the true focal point of opposing defenses? I wouldn’t be too worried. The attention the defense has to pay to Bockin creates such a gravity that other players will have tons of space in the box. Matching her 12 assist performance from a year ago won’t be easy, but it’s certainly not out of the question.
Makenzie Langdok: I joked with Langdok that she should be careful how well she plays as an outside back in the WPSL over the summer, because she might just cement herself into a starting role back there. The truth is, her physicality and knack for goal make her a great target forward in the center of the front line. She only saw action in 8 games her freshman year, but her solid spring – and great summer – seems to have given her the edge for a starting spot.
McKenna Buisman: Buisman is a serious athlete. She came to campus in January to get an early jump on her freshman year, but she’s still raking in high school awards left and right. As a dangerous lefty with serious pace on the wing, you can likely pencil her into a starting spot up front. One of the toughest parts of adjusting to the college game is the quickness and physicality. But her fitness and speed – and ability to recover even after a mistake is made – eases that transition a bit. If she can stay focused when the chances come to her, don’t be surprised if she scores a handful of goals this fall.
Maddie Castro: Castro may not end up starting, but I guarantee you she will have a spot in the rotation. The coaches rave about Castro’s coachability and her growth on the squad. As a senior on a team with so many new faces on the field, Castro will be called upon to stabilize the bench and contribute in every game. Golan likes to use a lot of subs in the front six and it will be on players like Castro to bring a consistent spark off the bench and maybe move into the starting lineup if a change needs to be made. (This is where I remind you that the team’s second leading scorer last year, Julianna Gernes, was largely coming off the bench.)
You’re probably looking at Heslin as the holding midfielder with Nummerdor and Fiedler in front of her in the midfield. And Buisman, Langdok, and Bockin from left to right on the front line. (If more of the freshman defenders show a lot of potential or Langdok happens to move back, it's clear that the coaches may want to move Patricia Ward up top as well. In regards to her potential, the phrase "lead the team in scoring" has been thrown around fairly confidently.)
For all the gaudy assist and scoring numbers, last year’s team still had some issues with finishing – leading to 6 overtime matches in just a 19 game season. When you’re playing two games in three days most weekends, that can be absolutely brutal.
All of that is to say, the front six – and especially front three – may be where players rotate most. The distance players are required to cover alone means most of the subbing is done in the midfield and the attack. So even if the starting lineup stays somewhat consistent, you can expect the rotations to vary throughout the year – especially early on in the exhibition and non-conference games.
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