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Illinois Soccer goes 1-1 over the weekend

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The Illini split their matches this weekend, leaving more questions than answers.

TOPSHOT-US-SKYLINE-TRAFFIC-LOS ANGELES Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Illinois Soccer took its first road trip of the season this past weekend, taking on Pepperdine on Friday and San Francisco on Sunday. The WCC foes looked to be difficult tests when the schedule was first released, and they certainly lived up to the billing.

First up was a date in Malibu at No. 22 Pepperdine. The Waves came into the match 1-0-1, including a scoreless draw with then No. 12 Texas A&M. Pepperdine started strong, pouring pressure on the Illini defense before banging a shot off the crossbar in the 5th minute. The game evened out after that, with both sides getting chances in a fairly open first half. The Waves broke the seal on the game in the 24th minute, as Brie Welch muscled off two Illini defenders and put a shot juuuust out of the reach of Jaelyn Cunningham. The Illini answered in the 40th, as Ariana Veland cleaned up a corner with her feet as opposed to her head, lobbing over the keeper from the back post to the front. The teams went to the half tied at one goal a piece.

The second half started just as openly as the first. Pepperdine took another lead in the 50th minute, as the Illini defense was unable to clear their lines, which Leyla McFarland eventually cleaned up. The Illini again answered, this time after a period of sustained pressure followed by some absolute brilliance from left fullback Kendra Pasquale in the 59th minute. After shaking a Waves defender out of her boots, she sent a howitzer blast over the Pepperdine keeper from 25 yards out that went over the keeper and went bar down (which, of course, was the only goal nobody got a clip of). Once again, the game returned to its back-and-forth nature. The Illini then started to take control starting around the 75th minute. It led to Pasquale sending a shot/cross into the box to nobody in particular, but the Pepperdine keeper mishandled it, allowing Maggie Hillman to pounce on it and give the Illini the lead in the 82nd minute.

The Illini then killed off the next eight minutes, not allowing the Waves to even sniff the goal. Illinois came away with a 3-2 win and improve its record at that point to 3-0-0.

The next leg of the trip came a little further south at the campus of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles against the San Francisco Dons. Unfortunately, nobody set up a live stream of it, so I can’t give you as detailed of a recap. Both sides had nine shots with four on goal, but three of the Don’s SOGs found the back of the net while none of the Illini’s did. It was Illinois’ first loss of the season, the most goals given up by the team this season, and a larger margin of loss than the Illini had all last year.

A couple things:

1. We’ll start with the worst and work our way to the good stuff, so I’ll try to make sense of the loss to USF first. My guess is that basically everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Despite the Illini going undefeated up until then, they were by no means a perfect team. The defense is inexperienced and at times very shaky, and relying on the offense to always score three goals per match is not a surefire way to go undefeated. It was also very much a trap game after a giant win in Malibu, being a standalone neutral site game against a solid mid-major team. While a letdown shouldn’t be expected, it isn’t completely out of the ordinary.

2. My head is telling me there are actual tangible soccer-reasons why the Dons won, but my heart says it’s because nobody outside of Los Angeles could watch. I’m still mad there wasn’t a livestream of this anywhere. As someone who has watched the early rounds of the US Open Cup before US Soccer got a bona fide streaming deal for it, I’m happy with literally any sort of video quality. There’s no reason why any sort of D-I sport can’t be streamed. Granted, there isn’t the biggest audience for it, but the amount of work it takes is minimal.

3. Alright, it’s time to talk about Kendra Pasquale, and in particular, her defense. The kindest way to describe it is to say there’s room for improvement, but that’s fairly understandable. She’s a redshirt freshman who got no playing time last season and was thrown into the fire at left back this year after a season-ending injury to Canadian-U20 national and All-Big Ten Freshman Ashley Cathro. It’s not the most ideal situation, and as a whole, she’s grown into it some over the first three matches, looking much more confident in her role.

But she still makes some glaring mistakes (I mean, if I’m seeing them, they’re very glaring). In particular, the second Pepperdine goal was the result of her putting a clearance off the midfielder in front of her. In the Loyola match, it seemed like the Ramblers put a target on her and focused all their pressure on her.

Again, the good thing is that she’s been improving leaps and bounds, and she’s been playing well enough that up until the USF match, she played every minute of the previous three matches. The bad thing is she was pulled shortly after the first Dons goal in the 25th minute and didn’t return to the match. That either means she took a big step back or, more likely, she took a knock. Either way, it’s not a good sign.

4. It’s never too early to do some postseason prognosticating, and again, I have no clue what to make of it all. The win against Pepperdine was a good resume booster, while the blowout to USF will probably go down as a bad loss and the one of the first ones I’d point to if the Illini find themselves on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament. Would it have been better if they did the opposite, beating USF and losing to Pepperdine? Who knows?

Either way, the coming weekend is a similar test, on the road against a very good Butler (3-1) team followed by a short trip west for a match with a somewhat solid Illinois State (1-3) squad.

5. Makenna Silber is starting to warm up. She still has only one goal on the season, but she led the team in shots against USF, and she almost singlehandedly killed off the Pepperdine match after the Illini took the lead (and put a shot off the crossbar in the process). Hopefully that’s a sign of things to come. There’s not too many places for the Illini attack to improve, but Silber consistently scoring goals would somehow take it to another level.

6. Alright, it’s time to talk about Kendra Pasquale again, but this time, the offense. I’m not sure if she’s the most technically gifted defender the Illini have, but she sure is the least afraid to show it off. When she and Hope Breslin are on the same side of the pitch, they make it the flashiest place on earth. Add that to the cannon she has for a left foot (she should be the second choice for free kicks behind Breslin), and she’s one of the Illini’s most dangerous attackers despite being in the back four. She showed it off with her goal against Pepperdine, and it kills me that nobody clipped the video of it. Again, I hope she didn’t pick up a long-term knock in that USF match…

7. That Pepperdine match was the most complete performance the Illini had this year. The defense absorbed pressure, and the goals were from a moment of brilliance from a Waves forward and one mistake in communication. The attack put three goals past a team that hadn’t conceded a goal up to that point. The Illini didn’t completely control the match, and nobody will against the No. 22 team in the nation. However, they did control the match when they needed to respond and during crunch time. Plus, they choked the life out of the game when they got the lead late, not leaving any doubt.

That’s what this team can be. They can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone. Unfortunately, the USF match proved that just about anyone can go toe-to-toe with them as well.