So before I begin digging into the Illini soccer schedule, here’s a nice schedule infographic for you because I’m lazy and I don’t want to type it all out:
And now it’s time for some takeaways.
The non-conference schedule is exactly what the Illini don’t need this year.
You know how basketball teams are always avoiding playing decent mid-majors to avoid a somewhat likely but seemingly embarrassing loss? Well, the non-conference schedule is basically all decent mid-majors. Apparently, we didn’t learn our lesson from the loss to DePaul last year. There’s only one non-conference match against a team that made the tournament in 2018, and of course it’s the first game of the season against Loyola.
The west coast trip is probably the second most challenging part of the season (we’ll get to the most challenging in a minute). Both matches are against teams that were in the upper half of a multi-bid West Coast Conference last year. Pepperdine is even more of a trap, as they finished third in a tough WCC and it’ll be a true away match.
Again, the frustrating part of these matches is that none of these could be considered a marquee win like last year’s win at Duke, but a loss or tie in any of them puts the Illini’s NCAA tournament hopes behind the 8-ball going into conference play. But hey, when a trip to Malibu presents itself, you take it I guess.
The Illini’s Big Ten draw is…fine.
The Big Ten schedule is set up to where each team plays 11 conference matches. Since Midwesterners love tradition more than sense and there are 14 teams in the Big Ten, each team skips playing two other teams. There are two arguments for who you want to miss on the draw. If you skip playing two stronger teams, you have a better chance at finishing higher in the conference standings and getting a better draw in the conference tournament. If your draw excludes two cupcakes, you can do what Northwestern did last year and point to your strength of schedule to try to make the NCAA tournament if your season goes down the tube.
The Illini’s two byes are Rutgers and Purdue. Rutgers finished 2nd in the conference last year, and Purdue finished second-to-last. Everything is in perfect balance here.
The season comes down to the last two weeks.
On the road at Penn State. On the road at Ohio State. At home against Wisconsin. At home against Minnesota. This… this is bonkers. All four teams made the NCAA tournament last year. Penn State is ranked No. 6 in the preseason polls. Wisconsin is No. 16. Ohio State beat the Illini 7-0 in 2017 and 2-0 last year. Minnesota won the Big Ten tournament last year.
Barring a bunch of early-season disasters, these two weeks will decide the Illini’s postseason fate. If there are a few blemishes in the Illini’s record, winning a few of these matches will do wonders to counteract that. However, if the season has been strong up until then, this could decide if the 2019 Illini soccer team is historic.