The upcoming spring soccer season has few certainties. The only obvious thing is that it’ll be exceptionally weird. For starters, a normally autumnal sport is taking place in late winter and early spring. The schedule is bizarre:
Of course, the Big Ten has decided to go conference-only for most of its non-revenue sports, as is the case with women’s soccer. Starting an outdoor season in mid-February anywhere in America is pretty bold, but especially so in the Midwest. Because Demirjian Park is the southernmost ground in the western half of the conference, the Illini schedule is front-loaded with home matches. Even their first “road” match is in Illinois, taking place at an indoor facility in Rockford against Wisconsin. However, their season opener at home against Purdue on Saturday has been moved up to Thursday at an indoor facility in Westfield, Ind., a northern suburb of Indianapolis.
All matches are going to be weird without crowds, but especially at Illinois. Yes, technically Demirjian opened up last year, but that was more of a soft opening. The full opening of the stadium would be rocking. By the way, it’s insane the jump in facilities Illinois is taking from the field inside the track to Demirjian. This is at best a guess by looking at Google Maps and different athletic departments’ websites, but the Illini are going from approximately the second-worst facilities (thanks Iowa!) to arguably the third best in the nation after Grand Canyon and Louisville and probably the best in the Big Ten.
Anyway, as weird as the matches will be, the schedule is fairly kind. The two skips are Maryland, who beat the Illini 6-2 last season, and Rutgers, who is always a force in the Big Ten. The other two obviously difficult matches on the schedule, Wisconsin and Penn State, are at a neutral site and at home, respectively.
The Illini will also need all the scheduling perks they can get, particularly with the reduced size of the NCAA Tournament. The field is only 48 teams instead of the usual 64, cutting the number of at-large spots from 33 to 17. There are usually 4 or 5 Big Ten teams that qualify. So, if you want to get in, win the Big Ten tournament or come in second in the regular season. If you want to sit squarely on the bubble, aim for third.
Besides the schedule being kind, the other major advantage the Illini have is behind the bench. Sure, 18 seasons as the head coach of the Illini brings along a ton of experience, as does the preceding season as an assistant coach for the Illini. However, what happened between these stints is possibly the biggest advantage Rayfield has over her peers: she was an assistant coach for the U19 and U16 national teams. The job description for a YNT coach is basically “have your teams play a weird schedule in empty stadiums while keeping the players fresh for a season that starts up pretty soon afterwards,” so the weirdness of the 2020 spring season won’t be completely new to her.
Experience will get a coach so far, so it’s time for a roster rundown from front to back. I’m basing most, if not all, of this on the three Friday Night Lights scrimmages the team streamed this fall.
Rayfield’s 3-5-2 formation calls for 2 forwards, and in the past few seasons, this results in a small forward playing off of a power forward, two positions that are unique to only Illini Soccer and nowhere else in the sports landscape. That power forward is going to be junior Makena Silber. She’s built like a truck as her Twitter handle suggests. She’s strong enough to out-muscle defenders but then quick enough to where it’s a problem. Her production hasn’t exactly matched her talent, though. Whether that’s due to just her (maybe) or bad service from the midfield (very likely) remains to be seen. I will now attempt to use a truck simile. She has played like an F-150: not amazing, but it’ll do alright. She’s shown flashes that suggest she has the parts of a Raptor, but she just needs to put them together. End of truck simile.
The small forward is probably going to be freshman Julia Eichenbaum. A record-setting goal scorer in New Jersey high school soccer, she was stellar during the FNL series. She is quick, smart, and hard-working, a perfect recipe for making some runs behind the defense and finishing. She just finds and creates little openings she can take advantage of. If Eichenbaum and Silber can find some chemistry as a strike pair, watch out.
Some backups to watch:
- Redshirt sophomore Peyton Willie is the clear backup for Silber. She’s coming off a serious leg injury and wasn’t quite up to her pre-injury speed during the FNL series. Hopefully she’s continued to recover over the past three months.
- Zoey Kollhoff is a freshman who showed a knack for goal poaching during FNL. Scoring goals is the point of the game, and she knows how to find some easy ones.
- Sophomore Ashley Prell is a beanpole that can scoot and showed some flashes in the fall. She’s not going to be a power forward in this case, but she showed that she can find some openings to launch some dangerous shouts
- I’ll be honest, I forgot about sophomore Summer Garrison during my first pass-through with this. I feel extremely guilty and stupid, and that’s because she’s probably the backup to Eichenbaum. Like Eichenbaum, Garrison is quick and hardworking, but maybe doesn’t find the same gaps that the freshman does. That’s why I think Eichenbaum will start over Garrison but Garrison will be the first choice off the bench.
- Redshirt sophomore Meredith Johnson-Monfort is a local product who isn’t quick enough to be the small forward or strong enough to be the power forward, but she’s from Mahomet so we’re hoping that she can figure something out. She has one career goal, coming in that Maryland blowout last season.
- Senior Katie Le could bring some energy and experience as a small forward, although she’ll probably cycle into the midfield more. She also has one career goal, a slightly more important game-winner against then-No. 3 Duke in 2018.
- Hope Breslin might play alongside Silber/Willie/MJM, but we’ll talk about her in the next section.
The current issue with the Illini soccer roster construction is the midfield isn’t big. It’s a bunch of scrawny, quick players who are decent going forward. The two main questions facing the midfield are A) can they find a way to keep possession despite a size disadvantage? And B) can they prevent jailbreaks for the opposing attacks? If they can find an answer for B, that should be enough, but solving A will theoretically solve B.
This team begins and ends with Hope Breslin. She’s the best player on the team, full stop. What she did in the FNL series was remarkable, winning the golden boot for the most goals scored and golden ball award as the best player, and there wasn’t any other choice really. She was put on the team full of freshmen and sophomores and played out on the wing generally. From there, she would work her magic, placing a perfect ball for Eichenbaum to run onto or keep the ball herself and dance around defenders. It got to the point where I thought the opposition should start man-marking her (they could’ve left the 9 remaining outfield players in a 3-3-3 formation, bringing a new strategy to the sports landscape: the box-and-one). If Rayfield can find ways to get the ball to Hope in space and keep her from getting banged up, the Illini attack could be something special.
The other four midfield starters are at best a guess, so the next four players I mention are who I think will start, but with decreasing confidence. Eileen Murphy is probably the best physical presence on this team. The sophomore is clearly the best aerial threat, and her powerful right leg launched a few stunning goals during the FNL series. Senior Maggie Hillman is a chaos agent in the attacking third, forcing and collecting errors from the opposing defense. Oh, oh god, who else, we need some defense, uhhhhhh… sophomore Kendra Pasquale maybe? She’s always been a good attacking presence with her cannon of a left boot, but I think she’s gotten quicker between her freshman and sophomore seasons which should help with defensive responsibilities. In a similar vein, I’ll pick junior Katelynn Buescher as the last midfielder on my starting lineup to also help out with defensive responsibilities. She spent last season as a defender, so that experience should help.
Playing with 5 midfielders likely means the roster has plenty of depth, as is the case with the Fighting Illini, so let’s run through some of it.
- I’ll start with Jayna Fittipaldo, a senior who has played 40 minutes over the 5 matches that she’s appeared in. The reason I’m mentioning the Yinzer first is that she played out of her mind in the FNL series. Like, if Hope Breslin wasn’t Hope Breslin, Fittipaldo would’ve had a case for the FNL golden ball.
- I’ll mention sophomore Lilian Lucas next to share a highlight from her first match with Detroit City:
Lilian Lucas' left-footed strike from well outside the 18-yard box is our @TullamoreDEW Shot of the Match. Lucas' tally put City up 1-0 midway through the first half and was the first-ever goal for the women's team at Keyworth. pic.twitter.com/0bAgVPS0Dc— Detroit City FC (@DetroitCityFC) July 25, 2020
She attempted to recreate this many times in the FNL series with mixed results. I mean, one went in. What she lacks in speed, she makes up for in confidence.
- Ashleigh Lefevre is a rangy defensive midfielder from Australia. The junior is from Brighton, which is a suburb of Melbourne that’s close to St. Kilda. I only mention this because she might be a Saints fan, and for that I am sorry.
- Amaya Ellis is a junior who plays for the Trinidad and Tobago national teams. She knows how to position herself well and how to find space, which is only half the equation. The other half, finding the right pass, comes and goes, to put it gently.
Losing two senior defenders to graduation is never easy, but with a 3-man backline, that’s especially rough. Lexi Carrier was a serviceable right back who was caught out of position at times, and Alicia Barker put out so many fires as the lone centerback. Since left back was a revolving door in 2019, it’s likely that the 3 in the 3-5-2 will be changed wholesale from last season.
- The good news is that Ashley Cathro is back. The redshirt sophomore was a member of the All-Big Ten Freshman team in 2018, but she spent the 2019 nursing an injured knee. Finding that form from two years ago again would be massive for this season.
- I’m guessing that Henar Urteaga will fill the centerback role for this team. The senior from Pamplona is as strong as a bull and is likely the second-most physically imposing member of this squad behind Murphy. She was used as a Swiss Army Knife during the FNL series, playing all over the field and causing problems with her physical play.
- As for the last third of the backline, I have three options. I’ll choose Aleah Treiterer as my favorite right now just based on experience. The sophomore from Sacramento is big enough to deal with larger forwards and quick enough to recover to put out fires.
- Joanna Verzosa-Dolezal is fairly similar to Treiterer so I don’t know what to say about her without sounding redundant. Both are solid choices for the starting lineup. JVD is also similar to Cathro in that they both were Canadian Youth Team Nationals, both part of the Vancouver Whitecaps system, and both graduates of Burnaby Secondary School. It’s darn good recruiting pipeline that Illinois has in British Columbia.
- The third option is Makala Woods. The freshman from Ohio is just a pest. She’s listed as a forward, and she uses those skills to drive opposing attackers insane. During an earlier scrimmage, she matched up against Breslin for most of the scrimmage, eventually getting under Breslin’s skin and shutting her down (honestly, I think it’s why they ended up on the same team for the FNL series). She’s not as physical as any of the four defenders I’ve mentioned so far, but she is much more annoying. I could see her getting in depending on the matchup.
- The other choices for the backline used in the FNL series were Murphy, who I think should be used in the midfield to stop attacks earlier and to receive clearances from the defense/keepers, Lauren Stibich, a junior who is solid if unremarkable and who I always mix up with Erin McKeown, and Erin McKeown, a junior who is solid if unremarkable and who I always mix up with Lauren Stibich.
Well, Jaelyn Cunningham is gone. All her possible replacements have little to no collegiate experience. Also, I have no real eye to judge goalkeeping talent because it mostly seems very situational, but I’ll do my best. We’ll run through the four options in alphabetical order.
- Elizabeth Cablk is a senior who saw a half of action last season, giving up 2 goals on 4 shots (again, very situational). I have no scouting report. All I have to say is that I’m from a very Polish area, and I think she needs to buy a vowel.
- Julia Cili is a freshman who was coached in Florida by former Illini head coach Tricia Taliaferro. She stood on her head in match 2 of the FNL series, keeping the match within a 1 goal margin. I think she has talent that could use some polishing which can only come from experience. Of the two youngsters, I think she’s probably the favorite.
- Sami Sample is a senior who saw a half of action in 2018. She played 14 minutes and saw 0 shots. During the FNL series, she was the most comfortable keeper with the ball at her feet. Based on that, she might be the favorite of the elders, but I really don’t know.
- Natalie Phelps is a freshman from Wildwood, Mo. She played a bit like a deer in headlights during FNL, but that’s understandable as a freshman. I’m rooting for her to get the spot because she’s a product of St. Louis Scott Gallagher which owned/operated/pretty much was Saint Louis FC. Vamos Chupacabras siempre.
I think that they’ll go young with Cili, but honestly, I have no clue. That makes my projected starting lineup look something like this:
Eichenbaum – Silber
Breslin – Pasquale – Murphy – Hillman – Buescher
Cathro – Urteaga – Treiterer
In terms of expectations for this team, I have no clue. Last year’s squad started the year strong and then fell off as the rigors of conference play took effect. Throughout that slog of a season, there were some positives. They outplayed a tough Wisconsin side, although the scoreline didn’t reflect it. They cathartically destroyed a poor Minnesota side. The problem is that it’s tough to say that after replacing the whole defense and a goalkeeper, the team will make marked improvement. But with a little bit of hope and possibly a lot of Hope, this squad can make some noise. Either way, whether this team makes the NCAA Tournament or if they drop into the cellar of the Big Ten, there’s one certainty: it’s going to be really weird.