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Illini Soccer continues solid start to season, beats Iowa

Kendra Pasquale scored a brace to put the final score at 3-0.

@IlliniSoccer

After moving indoors for their first match, a 1-0 win over Purdue, Illini soccer got some fresh air on a mild winter afternoon in Urbana on Thursday. Fortunately, they brought their good form outside too.

The match started with the Hawkeyes on the front foot. Iowa forced Illini goalkeeper Sami Sample into 2 saves in the first half hour, one of which was remarkable. In the 20th minute, Hawkeye midfielder Hailey Rydberg went on a run from the center of the park towards the left wing in the attacking third. She slid into an awkward but venomous shot from the edge of the area towards the back post. Sample managed to sprawl to her left and get her fingertips to slow it down just enough for Hope Breslin to recover and clear the ball from danger.

The game turned on its head in the 30th minute. Summer Garrison found herself in a pocket of space about 25 yards out. She sent a shot(?) towards goal, and Hawkeye goalkeeper Monica Wilhelm made an absolute meal of it. She dove about two feet beyond where the shot(?) bounced, and thus the ball went over her and into the net, giving the Illini an unexpected but welcome lead.

But the Illini weren’t done in the half. In the 45th minute, Amaya Ellis released Julia Eichenbaum behind the Iowa defense, who eventually laid it off to Maggie Hillman, who sent a cross to Kendra Pasquale just outside the 6 yard box, who put a move on her defender to find some space to find the back of the net. After little bit of teamwork and a little bit of individual brilliance, the Illini led 2-0 heading to the break.

The first big opportunity for either side came 3 minutes into the second half, when Hawkeye forward Maggie Johnston made a hard run into the box, where the ball found her open about 10 yards in front of goal. However, her hard shot went directly at Sample, who caught it easily to stop another golden chance for Iowa.

Illinois would get into the action in the 54th minute. Makenna Silber made a run down the right wing behind the Iowa defense, and when she got to the endline, she put a low cross that trickled its way to a cutting Meredith Johnson-Monfort in front of goal. MJM couldn’t get any strong contact on it, but ball did get out to Pasquale in front of goal. Her one-timer deflected off a Hawkeye defender and out over the goal for an Illinois corner…

…which paid off. Aleah Treiterer put in a cross that the Iowa defense didn’t clear, so Eileen Murphy headed it towards goal, where it found either MJM or Hillman. One of them put it off the crossbar (and possibly in), and then another Illini took a crack at it which was snuffed out. Once again though, the ball found Pasquale in just a tiny bit of space, and she finally solved that defense. Apologies if this explanation doesn’t make any sense. Everything after Murphy’s header took place in the span of 3 seconds all inside the 6-yard box. Anyway, the Illini now led 3-0.

For the last 35 minutes of the match, nothing important happened. Iowa put some shots at Sample’s goal, but none were from a particularly dangerous position, and the quality of those shots did not make up for that. Illinois is now 2-for-2 in keeping clean sheets this season, defeating Iowa 3-0.

A couple thoughts:

  • So, uh, Kendra Pasquale is good. She’s gonna get some accolades for her brace, but beyond that, she might be the best decision-maker on the team when it comes to passing. She has a bunch of technical skill, as shown by her little feints to get some space for her first goal. She’s, like, fast? Something I couldn’t quite figure out because I think she doesn’t really have a lot of up-and-down motion in her gait? Anyway, the truth is I’m an idiot, and she can cover a lot of ground quickly. Smarts, speed, tekkers, and also a cannon of a left foot are some excellent qualities to have as a soccer player, and Kendra has them all.
  • I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that Summer Garrison didn’t mean to score. My main evidence is this photo taken right after she scored, where she looks like she broke a vase so expensive it’s pronounced with a short a:
@IlliniSoccer

I rest my case.

  • This was not a Hope Breslin game, but luckily it didn’t have to be. Credit to Iowa, who implemented the “beat the ever-living tar out of Hope if she gets the ball in space” defense very effectively. I mean, an Iowa player got a yellow card for a hip toss on Hope in the 24th minute (and she should’ve been sent off a few minutes later for an equally harsh tackle on Garrison), and it wasn’t the first judo move of the match against Hope. Thank heavens the ref decided to protect her this match, but that might not always be the case. She already plays with her right thigh in basically a cast, so she probably shouldn’t take a whole lot more punishment.
  • Time to talk about formations. The Illini are playing in a 4-5-1 this season, although it might be a 4-1-4-1. I just know there are 5 midfielders, 4 defenders (the fullbacks have the freedom to overlap and momentarily switch positions with the wide midfielders), and a lone striker. Really, it depends on if Murphy/Henar Urteaga are in line with the rest of the midfield or set back a bit.

Now, I think this is in part because Rayfield wants to play a 4-back lineup (more on that soon, but spoiler alert, it’s working), but I would like if there were 2 strikers, preferably Silber and Eichenbaum. I don’t think they’ve been on the field at the same time in the young season which is very frustrating to me because I think they’d make an awesome strike pair.

I also think Rayfield is building her formation from the back forward, and that’s why there’s a 5-man midfield. That fifth midfielder allows a physical presence like Murphy or Urteaga to sit back a little and protect the center backs, so to speak.

Basically, for me to hit all the criteria (4 backs, midfielder in front of the centerbacks, and 2 strikers), the only formation I can figure out that hits all those is a 4-4-2 diamond, also my go-to formation in FIFA 2005. The issue is that the diamond forces the midfielders to play narrowly or else their opposition will have a numbers advantage in the most important part of the pitch, so that’s probably not the answer.

This is a long-winded way of saying that although I think a two-striker formation probably makes the most sense for the attack, but overall, there isn’t a good way to make it work, so I’ll begrudgingly accept the 4-5-1.

  • Let’s talk about that back 4 that has managed to keep a clean sheet in every match so far. The center backs are Treiterer and Joana Verzosa Dolezal with Lauren Stibich and Ashley Cathro at right and left fullback respectively. Treiterer and JVD aren’t traditional massive, lumbering center halves. Usually, the only time center backs get up the pitch is to be an aerial target for a set piece. Treiterer, on the other hand, is called upon to deliver set pieces, particularly corners. They’re fairly quick and strong enough to handle physical forwards.

Stibich and Cathro aren’t exactly speedy, attacking fullbacks, but they get the job done defensively. Considering some of the firepower ahead of them on the wings, that’ll do just nicely.

The big thing about these 4 is that they’re a fairly young group. It goes RS sophomore-sophomore-freshman-junior from left to right. The one that’s closest to graduation is probably the most replaceable in my opinion (Fullbacks are less important than center halves and are thus more easily replaced, and Stibich has less accolades than Cathro). As I said in my last recap, the future is bright.

  • Sami Sample is a fascinating goalkeeper. It’s a small sample size (pun intended I suppose) but I think I have a general idea She’s not exactly big or an athletic freak unlike most collegiate keepers, but she’s doing well. I think it’s that she’s extremely good with her positioning and she’s fundamentally sound. If the defense is only going to allow some contested attempts from distance, she has that covered. She’s very good at coming out of goal to close down breakaways. The only issue I have so far with her after seeing one match is that her distribution isn’t exactly amazing, and the back line tended to knock some dangerous hospital passes around. It hasn’t come back to bite her or her defense yet, but it’s something that can be improved over the course of a season.
  • Time to talk about the stuff not on the field. First the negatives: Although I’m happy that there is a stream, the production quality isn’t great. There aren’t any replays, and some of the camera angles are bewildering. The only good time for a shot from behind the goal is on a goal kick, particularly when the camera is at field level.

The positives: Scott Sudikoff did an excellent job doing play-by-play on his own. Also, Dimerjian Park is going to rule. It looks so good, y’all. I plan to get back up to Chambana in the fall hopefully, and it’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to if the pandemic is tamped down. Construction crews were there working during the match, which kind of rules. The field looked like it was in fairly decent shape considering it’s February in central Illinois and there was a foot of snow on it less than a week ago. Bravo to Facilities and Services for making it look pretty good on the stream, a thing that can’t be said about many professional soccer stadium pitches even in summer.

  • On Sunday, Penn State comes to the construction site for a noon kick. The Nittany Lions were picked first in the Big Ten preseason poll. They have a 3-2 loss to a good Rutgers team and a 4-1 win over Northwestern. They’ve scored the most goals of any Big Ten team so far this season. Meanwhile, let me check the standings…wait. What. The Illini currently are on top of the Big Ten table. No other team has won both their matches so far. Granted, Purdue and Iowa aren’t exactly the class of the conference, so a ton of questions about how good Illinois really is will be answered on Sunday.

Actually, let me put it this way: With the truncated NCAA tournament this spring, if you beat Penn State, you’re likely to go dancing. Lose, and chances are you’ll be on the bubble.