The Illini play an unorthodox 3-1-4-2. Luckily it can separated into a few major positional groups, so let’s break it down.
Returning: Jaelyn Cunningham (Sr.), Sami Sample (Jr.), Elizabeth Cablk (Jr.)
Overview: This position is set for the next two years. Sample and Cablk will battle for the backup spot this year and the starting job in 2020. I would venture to say Sample leads currently, as she has appeared more in spot duty than Cablk. Luckily, new goalkeepers coach Lisa Lubke should have another year to solidify the depth chart because…
Spotlight: Jaelyn Cunningham is an exceptionally good goalkeeper. A national champion goalkeeper, actually. She’s a difference maker.
Case in point: October 11, 2018 vs Purdue. In a must-win match for the Illini to make the postseason, each team produced three very good scoring opportunities. The Illini cashed in on all three of theirs while Cunningham stopped two of the Boilermakers’, including this bonkers save:
But a goalkeeper’s time to shine is during penalty shootouts, and this past season, Cunningham shone very brightly. It’s once again time to revisit the first round of the Big Ten tournament, where she led the Illini to the semi-finals by pitching a shutout against the Badgers in PKs.
Again, exceptionally good. If I could give only one reason for people to come out to Dmerjian Park this season, “Jaelyn Cunningham in her senior season” is probably the best option.
Big Question: Will Jaelyn Cunningham be the Big Ten Goalkeeper of the year?
She was second team All-Big Ten this past season (a slight of Illini soccer by yet another selection committee), and the reigning GKotY graduated, so this should be her year.
Returning: Alicia Barker (Sr.), Ashley Cathro (So.), Kendra Pasquale (So.), Erin McKeown (So.), Lexi Carrier (Sr.), Lauren Smitherman (Sr.)
Graduating: Patricia George, Sarah Warren
Newcomers: Henar Urteaga (Sr.), Sydney Carste (Fr.), Aleah Treiterer (Fr.)
Overview: In Rayfield’s three-back system, each defender becomes ever-so-more important, and last year, the system worked. Goals conceded per game dropped from 1.84 the year before down to 1.05 in 2018, as did shots conceded, from 15.4 to 12.1. An improved attack and midfield probably contributes a bit to that improvement, but a better defense plays an even bigger role.
The outside backs don’t play like fullbacks, so they generally stay put and don’t go on the attack. They don’t play any sort of offside trap. What they do is communicate. It’s a thing of beauty to watch the defense shift around and pass off attackers to one another as they’re under distress. Every so often they get outnumbered, but the Illini defense usually makes the correct decisions to minimize any danger.
Canadian Ashley Cathro locked down the left side of the back line with a physical style that makes me believe Letterkenny is pert near spot on about the Great White North. She doesn’t play 10-ply. Her play earned her a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshmen team and a call up to the Canadian U20s this summer.
Spotlight: In the middle of the defense is Alicia Barker, who directed traffic more than adequately this past season. She also can send in a very hard slide tackle every so often to make opposing attackers reconsider their choices, which is what you want from your centerback. To wit, she put in two of the hardest challenges I’ve ever seen in the Oklahoma State match last season. One got her a yellow while the other was considered perfectly clean. Also...
...she does flip throw-ins. She does it all. She earned second team All-Big Ten honors last season.
Big Question: Who will play right back?
The answer to this will probably dictate how the season will go. Before I try to give my take, it’s time for me to go off on a tangent.
Patricia George received nowhere near enough recognition for what she did last season. In her sophomore and junior seasons, she was the starting striker for the team where she led the team in shots and goals in 2016 and was among the team leaders in various offensive categories in 2017. In 2018, the striker depth improved, so George made the transition from forward to defender. AND IT WORKED. She was incredible at right back. She wasn’t the most physical defender on the backline, but she was the wiliest. When she had to defend a one-on-one, she used her experience as a forward to figure out quickly what the opposition was doing and then her speed to shut everything down. Every so often, she’d show a glimpse of her background by getting the ball and making a very confident run up the field. She may not have been the best player on the field, but she certainly was both entertaining and intriguing.
But she’s graduated now, as is top backup and MVP of the Indiana match last season Sarah Warren, which leaves a giant question mark at right back for this coming season. My hunch is that Henar Urteaga, a transfer from Eastern Illinois and first-team All-OVC defender this past year, may be the one that answers it, but considering the position was filled by a former forward last year, the best I can do is a hunch.
Returning: Amaya Ellis (So.), Hope Breslin (Jr.), Haley Singer (Jr.), Jayna Fittipaldo (Jr.), Katelynn Buescher (So.), Arianna Veland (Sr.), Maggie Hillman (Jr.), Ashleigh Lefevre (So.)
Graduating: Lauren Ciesla, Morgan Maroney, Katie Murray
Newcomers: Eileen Murphy (Fr.), Lilian Lucas (Fr.)
Overview: As the 1-4 in the 3-1-4-2, the midfield has to cover a lot of bases. The wide midfielders act as quasi-fullbacks. Arianna Veland acts more often than not as the “1” in the formation, collecting the ball from the defense and starting the attack. She’s also the best aerial threat for the Illini, as she taught Minnesota last year by heading in the only two goals in last year’s match.
When the midfield is working correctly, they’re forming triangles and working the ball methodically up the pitch. When it isn’t, it completely disappears like it did in the second half against Penn State in the regular season.
Spotlight: Hope Breslin, y’all. She’s got some sauce. Somehow she tied for second on the team in goals despite playing out on the left wing most of the time. Let’s just roll the highlights, shall we?
Here she is (1) chipping the keeper (2) from the six yard box (3) on a volley (4) in overtime of the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. WHAT.
In highlights one and two, she turns on the afterburners to get past a defender and then puts away the penalty. That goal would be the difference between the Illini and the Terrapins.
This one is probably my favorite highlight of last year, but it takes some explaining. How did Maday get so open to get that shot off? Well, she was on the receiving end of a frozen rope from Breslin. That doesn’t sound too impressive, but that’s Breslin jogging into the bottom of the frame in the clip.
The only issue with Breslin’s game is consistency, and how she plays sometimes dictates how the whole team plays. For instance, in the Northwestern match, Breslin received a red card, and the Wildcats converted the ensuing free kick which turned out to be the difference. In the Indiana game where she scored the golden goal, the Illini were lucky to keep the match scoreless at halftime, and Breslin in particular had such a rough half that she was subbed. Fortunately, she was able to turn it around in the second half and overtime, as did the Illini to come out on top.
Big Question: How do you replace the seniors, particularly in the middle of the formation?
Two of the three graduating seniors were starters this past year, and Ciesla was a top back up for the center mids at the end of the season. However, the midfield was probably the most widely substituted area last season. The hope is that all the backups got enough experience to seamlessly take their places. The most glaring loss in the midfield is probably leading scorer Katie Murray. Murray was very much an opportunistic scorer who was very good at making something out of nothing and hitting the occasional free kick. Moving Breslin over to center mid and finding someone else to take over on the left wing seems like a pretty clear solution to me.
Returning: Katie Le (Jr.), Peyton Willie (So.), Meredith Johnson-Monfort (So.), Kelly Maday (Sr.), Makenna Silber (So.), Lauren Stibich (So.)
Graduating/Transferring: Maeve Riordan, Taylor Haynes, Caroline Ratz
Newcomers: Summer Garrison (Fr.), Ashley Prell (Fr.)
Overview: The formation calls for two forwards, but Rayfield prefers to have two contrasting strikers on the field most of the time. One of them, usually Makenna Silber or Peyton Willie, is generally larger and stronger while still being fast enough to where it’s a problem. They’re usually causing all the chaos and attracting the attention of the defense. Meanwhile, the smaller and quicker forward, usually Kelly Maday or Katie Le, goes around in that freed up space and cleans up the messes.
This past season was a definite improvement up front from last year, with an increase in scoring from an anemic 0.68 goals per game up to 1.70. With only one player who played substantial minutes leaving in Caroline Ratz, that number should only continue to increase.
Spotlight: Makenna Silber has all the tools. As mentioned before, she’s quick enough to where it’s a problem, but she was the strongest player on the pitch even as a freshman last season. Her most impressive skill is her ability to collect a pass or lob, hold it, and then distribute to the other forward or back to the midfield. She has the ability to grab a match by the scruff of the neck, and heavens help the rest of collegiate women’s soccer if she figures it out in the next three years. It’s highlights time:
Here she is muscling off two defenders and getting around the keeper to score in an early-season match against SIUe.
And here she is scoring a massive goal in the final regular season match of the season to help punch a ticket to the Big Ten Tournament.
She was on the All-Big Ten Freshmen Team for a reason, and that’s probably the first of many honors she’ll receive during her time at Illinois.
Big Question: Will they figure out how to finish one-on-one with the keeper?
The midfield and forwards were very good at creating very good chances, but finishing them was another story at times. Saying that the best defense against the Illini was to just let them run at the keeper was only slightly hyperbolic. Yes, the Orange and Blue managed to score eight goals on NIU, but it took 22 minutes and sooooo many blown breakaways to score the first one. If the Illini improve their finishing, they get a massive victory against Penn State at home. Yes, they scored a healthy 1.7 goals per game, but that easily could’ve been even higher.