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Illinois Soccer finishes non-conference slate strong

Wins at Illinois State, at Butler, and at home against Colorado College give the Illini momentum heading into conference play.

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Illinois Soccer came away from its California road trip with a bad taste in its mouth. After a massive win in Malibu against then No. 22 Pepperdine, the Illini got run off the field by USF. Fortunately, they had three more matches before conference play to get things back on track, and that they did.

First up, a short trip west down I-74 last Sunday evening for a matchup against in-state rival Illinois State. The Illini got off to a very quick start, as Kelly Maday slipped Makenna Silber in behind the Redbird defense in the second minute, and Silber made no mistake, giving Illinois a quick 1-0 lead.

Illinois State responded in the eighth minute as speedy right winger Mikayla Unger found some space and whipped in a low cross that found Katherine Felton, who tapped it in to equalize. Eighteen minutes later, Unger did it again, with her low cross finding Kate Del Fava to give the Redbirds the lead.

But the Illini fought back. In the 41st minute, Silber fired a shot that was heading towards the moon but found a Redbird arm in the box on its way, giving the Illini a penalty kick. Hope Breslin stepped up and put it confidently into the back of the net, knotting the score at 2-2.

The score would remain that way until halftime. The second half saw even more end-to-end action. In the 60th minute, Felton beat Lexi Carrier down the left wing and into the Illini box. Alicia Barker came over to put out the fire, but Felton’s cross hit her in the arm, resulting in a Redbird penalty kick. Del Fava stepped up to take it, but she took it poorly, putting her low shot very close to Jaelyn Cunningham, who got down to save it.

The Illini started applying more pressure, particularly from the 70th minute onward. It was worth it, as in the 90th minute, Carrier played Silber into the box behind the ISU defense. She wasn’t able to get a shot away, but a Redbird defender was tugging away at her shoulder the whole time, so the Illini were awarded a penalty kick. Arianna Veland stepped up and gave Illinois the last minute lead.

The last minute of the match then took approximately an eternity of actual time as ISU threw everyone forward trying to get a goal, allowing Kelly Maday to get the ball with nobody in her zip code and only the Redbird keeper between her and a goal. The keeper stopped Maday but not the ball outside the box, leading to her sending off. The Illini then ran out the clock, securing their 3-2 victory.

The Illini then went the opposite direction on I-74 on Thursday, heading to Indianapolis to take on the Butler Bulldogs, who hadn’t lost in the Sellick Bowl since 2016.

But it was Illinois that struck first. In the 18th minute, Maday freed up some space for herself from about 22 yards out and blasted a rocket past the Bulldog keeper, giving the Illini an early lead. Despite the Bulldogs outshooting the Illini 6-2 in the first half, the Illini held a 1-0 advantage at the half.

The second half continued with more Butler pressure, as the Bulldogs put up four shots in the first 10 minutes of the period. However, the Illini would score again by the end of the 55th minute, as Makenna Silber received the ball in the Bulldog box, and made a quick turn past her marker, who had no choice but to drag her down. Eileen Murphy came on to convert the spot kick to make the score two-ra-loo-rye-ahhhhhhh to nothing.

The rest of the match was all Butler pressure, with the Bulldogs outshooting the Illini 9-1 the rest of the way. However, only two required heroics from Cunningham, the first of which came in the 71st minute, as Katie Soderstrom fired a wicked shot across the ground that Cunningham got down to stop. Unfortunately, she spilled the rebound right out in front of goal, and Anja Savich was the first player to the ball. She put it into the wide open net, cutting the Illini lead to 2-1.

The second came in the 89th minute, as Becky Dean put a curler from the right wing that was either going wide or was sneaking into the upper left corner of Cunningham’s goal. Either way, Cunningham took no risks, palming the ball away and giving the Bulldogs a corner. Nothing would come of it, and despite being outshot 20-4, the Illini came away with the win 2-1.

The non-conference finale came on Sunday afternoon, as the Illini welcomed Colorado College of the Mountain West Conference to the first-ever match at Demirjian Park. The Tiger press made it difficult for the Illini to get out of their own end at times, but it was eventually solved in the 20th minute. Maday put a gorgeous through ball that diced up the CC defense, and Silber beat the Tiger keeper to open the scoring at the new facility.

Silber wasn’t done, though. Five minutes later, Breslin lobbed a ball over the Tiger back line that Silber got to first. She rounded the keeper and put the ball in the back of the net to secure her brace.

The rest of the half had some weirdness with substitutions and VAR (yes, the new digs have VAR apparently, for better or for worse), but nothing came of it. The second half was calmer, allowing coach Janet Rayfield to tinker with her lineup a bit, but again, nothing of note happened. The Illini picked up the win and their first shutout of the season over Colorado College by a score of 2-0.

Takeaways:

1. Silber and goals, Silber and goals, every team’s wishing for Silber and goals.

A brief recap of Makenna Silber’s last three matches: three goals, three penalties drawn. According to my “expert” analysis, that seems good. She’s starting to time her runs much better, teammates are starting to find her, and she’s beating keepers one-on-one. It’s a successful formula.

Is there still room for improvement? Well, right before ISU’s penalty kick, she received the ball at the top of the six-yard box back to goal with a defender on her hip and proceeded to dribble away from goal. Did I yell at my laptop while watching this? No, but only because I was watching the stream in a library.

What I’m trying to say is, she’s producing now, but if she becomes even more assertive at the mouth of the goal, watch out. That’s all that’s stopping me from typing in all caps about her.

2. Alicia Barker. I just don’t know how to describe how valuable she is to this team. She somehow cleans up almost every mess and puts out almost every fire. Her play has been the difference as this team figures out how to mesh after a second injury to its left back (or so I assume, more on that later).

Case in point: the Butler match. Yes, the Bulldogs put up 20 shots, eight of which were on target. However, I think only two were from inside the Illini box: the one that Jaelyn Cunningham got down quickly to save, and the goal off the rebound of that. Everything else was from 20+ yards out and didn’t really test Cunningham all that much. That’s a testament to Barker’s play. Every other time Butler ventured into the box, Barker was there to put a stop to that.

I don’t want to say Barker is irreplaceable, but she’s the only senior outfield player on this roster I can’t figure out an heir-apparent for.

3. I don’t have anything close to an encyclopedic knowledge of soccer, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a formation that’s dictated by who’s playing left back. All last season, the Illini played a 3-5-2, with Ashley Cathro at left back, putting in an All-Big Ten Freshman-level performance there. She had a season-ending injury in the offseason, thrusting her backup, Kendra Pasquale, into the starting lineup, which turned into a 4-4-2. In the USF match, she was taken out in the 25th minute and hasn’t seen the field since. Since there aren’t injury reports in college soccer, I’m just venturing a guess that she’s injured, but whatever happened, she’s not in the lineup currently.

So now the Illini are down to their third-string left back in Katelynn Buescher and have gone back to the 3-5-2. This seems kind of strange to switch back to a smaller back line, but Buescher and Cathro don’t venture too much forward, so having three backs who all don’t venture past the midfield line too often makes sense. Pasquale, on the other hand, likes attacking more than most Illini midfielders. She’d go on box-to-box runs whenever she was in the mood for it. A 4-4-2 is set up for overlapping fullback runs. Granted, that formation requires a right back as well, so Rayfield used it as a revolving door, with Lauren Smitherman, Lauren Stibich, Aleah Treiterer, and others filling in.

So, barring any more injuries or returns from injury, it should remain a 3-5-2 for the foreseeable future.

4. It shouldn’t surprise you then that left back is probably the weakest point of the lineup. Most of the opposition’s goals went through the right wing these past few matches. It also shouldn’t be much of a surprise considering the Illini are down to their third string back, and she’s making the transition from the midfield. There was no stream of the USF match, but I’m guessing having to switch formations mid-match may have played a role in that 3-0 loss. Since then, Buescher’s transition hasn’t cost the Illini any matches.

A lot of credit goes to Ashleigh LeFevre. She isn’t the most dangerous midfielder going forward, but she can cover a lot of ground and is a calming presence on the ball. Starting with the second half against ISU, she hung back more to help out on defense, and that helped shut down Unger and the Redbird attack. The Aussie is a wonderful safety net to have in front of Buescher as she learns on the job.

And Buescher is improving. She only gave up one very good chance against a very good Butler side and none to Colorado College. Is she at the point now where I’d feel confident putting up the Illini defense against top-tier Big Ten opponents? Probably not. Do I think she can get there before the backloaded part of the conference schedule comes around? Yes.

5. The giveaway at the Colorado College match was awesome. When I saw “hard hats” on the promotion schedule, I assumed they’d be little plastic shells. Nope, they’re actual hard hats with the strap and warnings and OSHA compliances and everything. The next giveaway is tambourines, so I’m expecting orchestral quality.

6. The temporary setup at Demirjian Park is going to take some getting used to. For one thing, all of the fans are crammed into the northwest corner next to the Illini bench. Secondly, the brand new video board is directly across the pitch at the centerline, and while the ball is in play, it’s showing a stream of the game that you’d have to look past to see. I also think that the teams are using tents as locker rooms currently, which isn’t ideal.

On the other hand, the grass looks fantastic, and the view of the Round Barns across St. Mary’s Road and the Arboretum in the distance is very picturesque. Add in no longer having to stare into the sun to watch the start of late matches and being much closer to the action, and the fan experience has improved already.

7. In the latest example of how transitive wins mean nothing, we look to this season’s quadrangle of matches between Illinois, Pepperdine, San Francisco, and No. 2 Stanford. Illinois beat Pepperdine 3-2, who beat Stanford 1-0 this past Friday, who beat San Francisco 9-0 (yes, that’s a nine), who beat the Illini 3-0.

However, Loyola Chicago went to Mizzou to beat the Tigers 2-1 last weekend. Illinois started off the season by beating the Ramblers 3-1. In this case, transitive wins mean EVERYTHING.

8. The Illini finished the non-conference slate with a 6-1-0 record. If the goal is to make the NCAA Tournament, they are right on track. The USF loss hurt a bit, but wins at Pepperdine and Butler are more than enough to cancel that out. A top-four finish in the Big Ten should be the target for making the big dance. Conference play begins on Friday at 7 p.m. CT at Demirjian against Northwestern (2-4-1). If the Illini want to make the tournament, this probably needs to be a win.