It’s been a wild ride for Illini Soccer this spring. After 11 matches, 2 of which were indoors, the last 3 of which were on the road, Illinois finds itself 6th in the Big Ten standings, accruing a record of 6 wins, 4 losses, and 1 draw. With all 14 Big Ten teams making the conference tournament instead of the usual 8, the postseason looks to be just as wild.
This season, the top 2 teams from each division (East and West) earn hosting rights for the first two rounds. Through some geographic luck, the Illini are one of those 4 teams and will host Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska at the now-fully-functional Demirjian Park. For the semifinal and championship round, the top remaining seed in the overall Big Ten standings hosts, and it is unlikely that the five teams ahead of the Illini in the standings will all slip up.
Illinois’ regional kicks off with third-seeded Minnesota facing the sixth-seeded Nebraska at 4 pm at Demirjian Park tonight. Illinois and seventh-seeded Iowa follow that under the lights in Urbana at 7 pm. Both matches today will be on BTN+.
The winners will meet at noon at Demirjian on Sunday. That match will be broadcast on BTN.
Illinois and Iowa faced off in the second match of the season, and the Illini prevailed 3-0 at Demirjian Park with a goal from Summer Garrison and a brace from Kendra Pasquale. The Gophers and Cornhuskers played to a scoreless draw the first week of the season in Minneapolis.
In terms of second round matchups, Illinois would probably want Nebraska just based on their match this season. The Illini beat the Huskers 3-1 in Urbana with goals from Pasquale, Makenna Silber, and Maggie Hillman. Dakota Chan scored the loan goal for Nebraska. Illinois’ match with Minnesota this season finished scoreless after 110 minutes. Iowa lost both their matches to Nebraska and Minnesota this season by the same 1-0 scoreline.
Players to Watch for the Illini
Kendra Pasquale - With Hope Breslin questionable at best for this weekend, Pasquale is Illinois’ best creator going forward. She leads the team with 5 goals this season and assisted on 2 others. She’s come through in the clutch as well, playing massive roles in two late game-winning goals against Northwestern and Michigan State. She just does absurd things with the ball at her feet. Couple that with her speed and she is a massive threat down the left flank for the Illini.
Eileen Murphy - If you want to impress your friends with your Illini soccer knowledge or if you want to feel like Nostradamus, just say “It’s going to Murphy” before every Illini set piece. It’s uncanny. Everyone knows (or should know) that Murphy is going to be the main target for set piece specialist Aleah Treiterer, but opposing defenses just can’t stop her. The tall athletic midfielder really knows how to use her noggin, heading in 2 massive goals against Indiana and Michigan State this season. In a knockout tournament where each goal is extra important, having a player like Murphy could make the difference. Here she is Mossing a Spartan:
Another look at the @eileenmurphy__ goal!#Illini ⚽ pic.twitter.com/oueOuwvxO3— Illinois Soccer (@IlliniSoccer) March 28, 2021
Sami Sample - Of course I have to mention the goalkeeper. She has only allowed 10 goals this season (about 2 of which were likely her fault). She’s not extremely athletic, and her distribution can be questionable at times (Northwestern’s lone goal against the Illini). However, her positioning and decision making for closing down an attacker is second-to-none. She’s a solid safety net for a decent Illini backline. She also made a spectacular save against a penalty kick against Penn State earlier this season, which should give the Illini faithful some hope about possible shootouts.
Opposing Players to Watc
Macy Enneking, Iowa - I’m not sure if “New Goalkeeper Bounce” is a thing like “New Manager Bounce,” but Enneking is making it a thing. In 4 and half matches, Enneking has only allowed 2 goals and was in the net for both Hawkeye wins this year. The freshman has been a spark for the Hawkeyes.
Katie Duong, Minnesota - The freshman has been a revelation for Illini women’s ten…ah whoops. The sophomore midfielder has assisted on 3 of the Gophers’ 7 goals this year. Duong has played every minute this season, which was not true last season as the All-Big Ten Freshman team member spent some time with the U20 national team.
Dakota Chan, Nebraska - I’ll be honest, I’m not sure who to pick for the Huskers. Their leading goal scorer (Eleanor Dale) was injured halfway through the season so I couldn’t pick her. Their defense and goalkeeping have let in 16 goals, which is third worst in the league. They also haven’t really improved over the season, so it’s hard to find the catalyst. I’m settling with Chan because she scored against the Illini earlier this year. I’m sorry, I just haven’t watched a ton of Cornhusker soccer this year.
I’ll give a pessimistic prediction and then an optimistic one. For balance.
Pessimistic: Illinois is lucky to be here and might get exposed. Minnesota bossed them in their match but was just unable to score, and the Iowa match was broken open by a fluky goal. Plus, they haven’t been amazing going forward. They only created 2 good scoring chances against a very poor Michigan State team and 3 against Northwestern. A first round exit isn’t off the table, and a second-round loss is a genuine possibility.
Optimistic: They could go all the way. Honestly. There are 5 teams in the conference I’m genuinely worried about playing: Wisconsin, Rutgers, Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State (who is the overall top seed and the heavy favorite to win it all). 4 of those 5 are on the other side of the bracket, so the greatest amount of terrifying teams Illinois will have to play is 2. Also, Illinois has beat up on most of the western division, defeating Purdue, Iowa, Nebraska, and Northwestern. In the two matches against Minnesota (a 0-0 draw) and Wisconsin (a 1-0 loss), Illinois played their worst soccer of the year. They were trying to imitate peak-Spain tiki-taki, which didn’t really work. They’re more direct now, and it’s unlocked some offense. Both of those poor results were on artificial surfaces, which Illinois struggles on more than natural grass. Add in some homefield advantage for a few matches, mix in a tough performance in the semifinals (or more homefield advantage, who knows), bake some luck in a winner-takes-all title game, and you might have a recipe for a Big Ten championship and an invitation to the Big Dance.