If you ignored the scoreboard and simply watched how the team defended, possessed the ball, and created chances, there really wasn’t a dramatic difference between the way the Gophers played in their frustrating extra time tie with Michigan on Thursday and their clinical dismantling of Michigan State on Sunday.
The big difference? The Gophers made two silly mistakes on Thursday that made Michigan look much better than the product on the field conveyed. On Sunday, frankly, everything was just clicking. The feast and famine of results may stem from the Gophers’ egalitarian attack. In their 4-3-3 formation, chances are created based on movement of essentially the entire team – usually only the center backs remain true to their defensive position.
When things don’t hum quite right, it can mean beautiful build-up after beautiful build-up that end in only somewhat threatening shots. It also means when things are going well, the team looks virtually unbeatable. This weekend’s results, then, mirror the Gophers’ season as a whole. Of the 10 games they’ve played so far, the result has been within one goal six times. The other four games, Minnesota has outscored its opponents by a whopping 21-to-2 margin (and those two were garbage time goals scored on players fairly deep on the bench). While some of this has to do with the quality of opponent, it also seems to stem from its offensive system.
The complex movement of so many pieces can be tough to choreograph. But you get the sense that if things start to click more regularly – say, around the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments – this team may be able to make some noise.
Sept. 21, 2017 – St. Paul
From the stands, Michigan seemed to operate as something of a poor man’s Minnesota. It had decent possession and spacing, but not great. It defended pretty well, but it gave up plenty of chances. It was pretty tough and fit, but eventually seemed to get frustrated by Minnesota’s more true grit.
In reality, the two biggest reasons for the draw had little to do with how Michigan performed in the run of play (for those wondering, they were outshot 39 to 7). One of its goals came on an extremely out-of-character miscommunication between the Gophers’ backline and goalkeeper Kailee Sharp. Several of Minnesota’s would-be goals were stopped by other-worldly saves by the Michigan goalkeeper. The famously loyal Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium crowd was so impressed by the away keeper that I actually heard some “ooohs” and “aaahs”.
Thankfully, Julianna Gernes came to play. On a team full of players who excel at moving and passing, there are very few who can put a some mustard on a shot and blast it past the keeper. To put it simply: Gernes can bring the mustard.
— Matt Privratsky (@MattPrivratsky) September 22, 2017
“What a statement for a kid to play the role that she’s been playing,” head coach Stefanie Golan said. “She hasn’t been in the starting lineup very much this year. She’s certainly good enough to be there and productive enough. But the difference she makes coming off the bench is tremendous. To be able to bring in a kid off the bench who can score the way she can is a tremendous asset for us as a program.”
For Gernes (who tends to split time in the starting lineup with other upperclassmen), that bench role is something she can take advantage of.
“A big part of it is watching what the starters do,” Gernes said. “Also, coach gives me tips that can help me read the game. So, if they like me coming off the bench and that’s the role I play and I can do a good job, that’s awesome for me.”
Sept. 24, 2017 – St. Paul
It doesn’t matter if you are the biggest Vikings fan in the world or if you are literally Joe Mauer emerging from years of bilateral leg weakness to bring the Twins to a wild card berth – trust me – you would have rather been watching the Gophers absolutely demolish Michigan State. With a score line of 7-1, I’m not going to try to describe all the ways in which the Gophers dominated because it would just be a long way of saying “all of them.”
The long term value of blowouts like these is that the Gophers can go deep into their bench and give young players valuable experience while only needing to play veterans like April Bockin a mere 36 minutes. The short term value for fans is getting to see veterans like Bockin drop a school record four assists with a goal on the side – in only 36 minutes. (I’m using the Tweet with this gif in it because, as teammate Sydney Squires commented, “This is GOLD”)
— Minnesota Soccer (@GopherSoccer) September 24, 2017
Over the past three games, Bockin has looked especially sharp, and Golan has noticed.
“When you’ve got a kid who has the ability with the ball at her feet to go at defenses and get inside the 18, good things are going to happen,” said Golan. “She’s playing with a great deal of confidence and she certainly draws a lot of attention, which opens up the rest of our players in our attacking group quite a bit.”
As a wide player in that 4-3-3 system, Bockin knows her role is to stretch the defense. Then, when they chase her, there’s one less defender to chase the Gophers making runs into the box.
“It’s felt really good. I’ve been able to get in behind the defenders a lot,” Bockin said. “And a lot of that is players finding me out wide and me just being confident on the ball. I know that my teammates are going to be in the box so those slips should be able to find their way in. It’s just a matter of time before we start putting them all away.”
6 p.m., Sept. 29: at Rutgers
12 p.m., Oct. 1: at Maryland
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