Five key trends to monitor as Gophers head into Big Ten play

[This piece is reposted from EqualTimeSoccer.com as part of our partnership to amplify Minnesota women’s soccer news across all of Sota Soccer’s channels]

After four disappointing results to kickoff the 2022 regular season, the Gopher Soccer team has righted the ship with four straight wins – entering Big Ten play at Nebraska this weekend with a winning record (4-3-1) and an identity that seems far more settled now than even mere days ago. Here are five key trends to monitor as Minnesota begins the meat grinder that is Big Ten conference play. 

Power of the Portal

The bulk of the Gopher rotation were recruited and developed solely by the Minnesota staff, but my lord have the transfers made an impact. Head Coach Erin Chastain has said repeatedly that she’s going to be incredibly intentional about how she uses the transfer portal. Someone has to clearly be able to make an impact above and beyond what the team currently has – but they also have to fit with the timeline of the team. The Gopher staff is tremendously high on their recruiting class that comes in next year and they don’t want to risk the development of that group (or their current group) with possible impact players that hang around for a few months before taking off. 

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Well, that intentionality seems to have paid off. Chastain’s first two transfers Sophia Romine and Gabbie Cesarone have come in and been maybe two of the most consistent players in the entire Gopher rotation. Romine has thrived as a central attacking midfielder – particularly in the last several games with fellow Sophia (Boman) next to her in the 4-3-3. Her mix of dribbling, sliding, gritty recovery runs, and combination play is so unique. If you only watched her on defense you’d maybe think she’s a defense-only scrapper who’s mostly useful as a pest against the opposing back line. If you only watched her with the ball at her feet you’d maybe think she’s a fancy, beat-the-whole-defense-herself dribbler. The fact that she’s both (and more) makes for some incredibly fun soccer. 

And all Gabbie Cesarone has done is provide top level athleticism and coordination on the backline alongside Delaney Stekr, legitimately fantastic recovery runs to shut down virtually any attempted through-balls or counter attacks, and back to back games with a goal off a corner – a skillset that Minnesota has *desperately* needed for [checks notes] essentially forever (more on that later). She’s done all of this as a graduate student transfer that spent the first years of her college career playing DIVISION THREE SOCCER. If Cesarone isn’t one of the best stories in college soccer this year I don’t know who is.

The Gophers have also gotten major contributions from two transfers who were inbound prior to the Chastain era: Izzy Brown and Christa Van Loon. Brown is playing super locked in, providing really high level hold up play using her strong tall frame, and her great finishing touch has her tied with Sophia Boman for the lead in goals (3). Christa Van Loon has provided a great mix of pace – regularly stretching the opposing back line and urging her teammates to send a ball over the top for her to run on to – and her trademark touch with that lethal left foot. I mean, this goal…

The Time It Takes to Build Chemistry

Considering virtually every core piece of the rotation is either a returning player or was here for the entire spring season (Cesarone, Romine, early enrollee Amelia Brown), it took Minnesota a *while* to start to look comfortable together this fall. During the first half of their exhibition game against Iowa State the lack of chemistry offensively was almost flabbergasting. But so many factors go into how a team combines and attacks. 

What spacing and movement principles are they trying to live by? What formation and positioning are they starting from? Are opposing teams sitting back more and allowing outside backs to flood the attack, giving you more players and a sort of automatic improvement to your attacking options? 

So while I’m not sure a group with this many veterans should have necessarily taken quite so long to shake off the cobwebs, let’s at least be grateful that they certainly now *have* been shaken off. Granted, some of the Gopher’s improvement in results and performance during the last four games was due to who they were playing (top ranked TCU on the road is tougher than a run of the mill mid-major at home etc). But it is very clear, if you’ve watched the games, that there is more to it than just quality of opponent. They look more comfortable and confident in the attack and in possession and that is welcome (and impressive) progress from how this team looked just weeks ago.

Living on the Margin

College soccer is a grind. Two games a weekend. Cross country flights to Texas and Mississippi. A 20 credit course load while lifting, training, playing, and just generally being a human. And it’s hard for teams to stay entirely locked in at every moment because that is just truly very difficult to do. That means tight games tend to flip not on talent or ability but on mentality and focus. 

For Minnesota, they were on the losing end of those flips against Baylor (1-0 lead slips to 1-1 tie), TCU (1-0 lead slips to 1-2 loss), Cal Poly, and Mississippi State (unable to score and leave with 0-1 losses). Even against North Dakota on the road they let themselves slip a bit late in the game and gave up a late goal (though their margin was already large enough that the result didn’t flip.

Only against Drake, Omaha, did they fully perform to expectation – multiple goals scored, shutout the opponent, convincing win. Then, against Marquette, they pushed the envelope even further –  multiple goals scored, shutout the opponent, AND add another late goal to extend your lead. In short: struggling teams let games slip (possible win becomes a tie, tie becomes a loss, etc). Good teams lock in the results that should happen “on paper”. Great teams grind out results where *they* flip that margin (pull out a win after a long drawn out tie game, etc). The Marquette game was already in hand and not really in doubt, but continuing to press the issue and finish out the game was still a really good sign for a Gopher Soccer team that had not exactly shown late game discipline all fall –  4 of the 6 goals Minnesota has allowed have come in the last 15 minutes of games. 

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Stats to Track

Not surprisingly, possessing and passing numbers were far stronge in the Gophers three shutout wins than in their winless four game start. But we have two even more basic stats to track as Minnesota begins Big Ten play: corner kicks and save percentage. 

Minnesota enters conference play having taken the most corner kicks among Big Ten teams. They finished fourth in corners last year, and first the season before. The problem? Those almost never led to actual goals. This year, there’s a chance that could change. Cesarone has scored header goals off corners in each of the last two games. Delaney Stekr is an absurdly willing aerial threat on those plays as well. And Coach Chastain thinks this year’s squad, in particular, is built to capitalize on corner kick opportunities. But in order to do so, they need to start delivering more of a driven service into the box. On most of Minnesota’s corners, you can write off the chance of a goal the minute you see the ball leave the ground as it’s lofted high into the air without any momentum for the runners to capitalize on when they themselves need to make contact with it. On the few times it’s been driven with pace, giving runners the chance to redirect that energy in the ball toward goal, the Gophers have felt dangerous.

The sample size to this point has been so small that I’m not even going to type out what Gopher Keeper Megan Plaschko’s current save percentage is. It’s not great, but that’s largely because in Minnesota’s best defensive performances, she hasn’t really even had the chance to *make saves*. So the rare times she “misses” a save are the times when a defensive breakdown occurred and it’s virtually unsavable for any keeper. Let’s see how those numbers start to tick up now that Placshko and the backline do start getting challenged. Last year she finished just inside the top 100 nationally (7th in the Big Ten) with an .808 save percentage. If she’s on her game, there’s no reason she doesn’t climb into the top 50 (typically around .820) or even the top 20 (around .850).

Rotation Depth & Strength

During their first game of the season, the Gophers bench played 79 minutes *total*. After a combination of factors led to an incredibly shallow rotation for Minnesota last fall, this first game had Gopher fans worried we were in for another repeat. But since then, the Gophs have settled into a fairly healthy rotation more in line with what you’d typically see a competitive roster provide. Meg Gray has moved to the bench but obviously still plays major minutes. Sophia Barjesteh and Amelia Brown have shown well as consistent contributors as freshmen. Elizabeth Overberg has some starts and some sub appearances on the back line. Christa Van Loon is doing Van Loon things (see above). Sadie Harper has some minutes alongside her sister Khyah and even more minutes as her replacement on the front line.

All in all, roughly 18 Gophers would likely clear the Buisman Line (a metric for being a regular rotation player of roughly 18-20 min a game named for then freshman Kenna Buisman) and – particularly up front – each sub has brought a little of their own game to their role when they get out there. It’s helped provide a good mix of variety and stability to a squad that, at times last year, had long stretches of looking offensively stale.

Next up:
– Minnesota AT Nebraska – Friday September 16th at 7PM (streamed on btnplus.com)
– Minnesota vs Indiana – Thursday September 22nd at 6PM (streamed on btnplus.com)
– Minnesota vs Northwestern – Sunday September 25th at 1PM (streamed on btnplus.com

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