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2021 Illini Soccer Schedule Preview

A strong non-conference slate followed by a relatively easy Big Ten schedule could make for a fascinating season.

Craig Pessman / Illini Athletics

After last season’s spring conference-only schedule, things are getting back to relatively normal for Illini Soccer. Regular season play is fast approaching, and after taking a look at who Illinois has on its roster, it’s a good time to look at who the Illini will be up against, breaking up the schedule into bite-sized chunks. Instead of giving predictions, I’ll give barometer readings for how very good, bad, and average seasons would theoretically go on this schedule. Maybe I’ll throw a prediction in at the end. We’ll see.


The Rivalry Chunk

At Mizzou | Thursday, August 19 | 7 PM

At Illinois State | Sunday, August 22 | 6 PM

Starting the season off with quite the bang. When these teams play, you can throw the record books right out the window, but before we defenestrate them, let’s take a quick look.

Eleven Braggin’ Rights matches have taken place in this rivalry, and Illinois is on the wrong end of a 3-6-2 record in them. Six of those matches have gone into overtime, but those two “ties” are delectable from an orange-and-blue point of view. Both happened in the NCAA Tournament. Both happened in Columbia. Both were decided by penalty kicks. Both were won by Illinois.

The Illini and Redbirds have clashed 16 times, which happens to be the most for the Illini against a non-conference opponent. Illinois won…well, the record book says 10 times, but it has the 2019 game as a loss that I know Illinois won, so I’m pretty sure 11. Either way, Illinois has won the majority. The teams split honors in 2 others, which, if you’re following along, means ISU has won 3 times so far in this series. Those 5 matches where Illinois State got a result all took place in Normal.

Both Mizzou and ISU are vaguely middling programs right now. The Tigers finished around the middle of the pack in the always-tough SEC, while Redbirds had a perfectly balanced 4-4 record in the slightly-less-tough MVC last season.

Good Season Results: Two wins, one however you can take it at Mizzou and one fairly comfortably at Illinois State. (2-0-0)

Average Season Results: A loss and a shaky win at Mizzou and Illinois State, respectively. (1-1-0)

Bad Season Results: Two losses, an emphatic one to Mizzou and a heartbreaker at Illinois State. (0-2-0)


The Non-Con Homestand Chunk

Vs. North Carolina | Thursday, August 26 | 8 PM

Vs. Butler | Sunday, August 29 | 1 PM

Vs. Xavier | Thursday, September 2 | 7 PM

Well, if you wanted a marquee opponent to open Demirjian Park to the public, you definitely got one. The Tar Heels enter the 2021 season ranked #3 in the nation after making the Final Four last season. The (checks notes) (rechecks notes) TWENTY-TWO-TIME (THAT’S A TWENTY-TWO, A 2 FOLLOWED BY ANOTHER 2) NCAA CHAMPIONS have only played the Illini three times, winning all 3 by a total score of 15-3 (which was helped along with a 9-2 loss in the 2012 NCAA Tournament). This will be the first matchup between the two that isn’t a homecoming for former Tar Heel and current Illini head coach Janet Rayfield as UNC hasn’t traveled to face the Illini in either Champaign or Urbana before.

Don’t overlook Butler though. The Bulldogs only dropped one match during the Spring 2020 regular season, but then lost the Big East championship to Georgetown in overtime. That sent the Hoyas to the postseason with the overall #13 seed and left Butler at home. It’s an imperfect measurement, but Butler currently sits in thirteenth according to RPI. In the series with Illinois, the Illini have won all 3.

Xavier is also on the schedule. Xavier wasn’t great last year, finishing 3-6 and interestingly 1 spot above Illinois State according to RPI. Illinois has won the previous 2 meetings.

Good Results: A close loss to UNC, a decent win against Butler, a blowout of Xavier. (4-1-0)

Average Results: A loss to UNC without the score getting out of hand, a tight loss to Butler, and solid win against Xavier. (2-3-0)

Bad Results: An embarrassment against UNC, a thorough loss against Butler, a very tight win against Xavier. (1-4-0)


The Familiar Face Weird Ohio Mid-Major Road Trip Chunk

At Bowling Green | Thursday, September 9 | 7 PM

At Toledo | Sunday, September 12 | 1 PM

I didn’t say that these chunks would be elegantly named. According to the record books, Illinois doesn’t have a whole lot of history with either of them. The Illini and Rockets have only met once (a 5-1 Illinois win in 2011), and Illinois and Bowling Green have never met before. MAC road trips aren’t completely out of the ordinary for Illinois, as they have travelled to NIU, Ball State, and Miami (Ohio) in the past.

The match against Bowling Green might be the most fascinating match on Illinois’ 2021 schedule. The Falcons won the last 3 MAC titles, so they’ll be a tough out (currently they’re 31st in the nation according to RPI). They’re led by Madi Wolfbauer, which might be a familiar name because she started her career at Illinois. Although she was a fairly highly regarded recruit, Wolfbauer didn’t get a whole lot of playing time and thus didn’t produce a whole lot. She moved on to Bowling Greener pastures, to put it kindly. She’s been outstanding as a Falcon, putting in 5 goals in 8 matches last season, named first team All-MAC, and a Scholar All-American. As a very physical presence, the whole Bowling Green attack revolves around her.

Toledo is not quite as good. They finished 1-5-1 last season and sit 284th in RPI (5 spots ahead of the Southern Illinois Salukis, who just finished their second ever season). They aren’t exactly a great team to put it kindly, but it’ll be nice to see Jaelyn Cunningham again, the former all-B1G goalkeeper for the Illini and current assistant coach for the Rockets.

Good Results: Grind out a win at Bowling Green, crush Toledo (6-1-0)

Average Results: Lose a heartbreaker to Bowling Green, beat Toledo soundly (3-4-0)

Bad Results: Get dominated by Bowling Green as Wolfbauer scores a hattrick, grind out a win against Toledo (2-5-0)


The Michigan Conference Opener Chunk

At Michigan | Friday, September 17 | 4 PM

It’s a small chunk, but the Wolverines didn’t really fit with anyone else. Michigan leads the overall series 17-9-1) but it’s been particularly lopsided in the recent past, as the Michigan Women have taken 6 out of 7 from Illinois.

Last year’s entertaining matchup showed the gap between the two squads. Illinois played well, attempting 14 shots, 7 of which were on goal, but Michigan countered with 18 and 7 of their own, converting 2. It was a deserved victory for the Wolverines, who just seemed to command the game when they wanted to, using their size and speed to boss the Illini as necessary. Although the Illini return almost everyone, Michigan is returning plenty of talent too, particularly All-B1G first teamers Nicki Hernandez and Alia Martin. It’s going to be tough, but it’ll be a good measuring stick to see if Illinois has taken a step forward, if any.

Good Result: Tough win (7-1-0)

Average Result: Look good and hold your own, but Michigan wins it comfortably (3-5-0)

Bad Result: Get played off the field (2-6-0)


The Conference Rivalry Chunk

Vs. Purdue | Thursday, September 23 | 7 PM

At Indiana | Sunday, September 26 | 12 PM

At Northwestern | Thursday, September 30 | 7 PM

The three closest conference teams…that should make them count as rivals for Illinois, right? Illinois leads each of the overall series, although each of them is pretty close (13-9-3 vs. Purdue, 14-7-4 vs. Indiana, and 14-8-3 vs Northwestern). Similarly, Illinois won all three matchups on the road last season, but all of them were fairly close (twin 1-0 wins vs. the Indiana teams and a 2-1 nailbiter at Northwestern).

There’s not much to write home about for these 3 teams. None of them have any standouts, but each team is solid which makes each of them a tough out. Considering these are…rivals… this might be the bellwether stretch of the season. Actually, considering Northwestern is definitely a rival, the match on the lakefront is probably the bellwether of the bellwether.

Good Results: 3 wins, however they come. (10-1-0)

Average Results: Win a match against an Indiana team, lose the other one, and pick up a draw against Northwestern. (4-6-1)

Bad Results: Lose all 3. (2-9-0)


The Relatively Easy Mid-Atlantic Chunk

Vs. Maryland | Sunday, October 3 | 12 PM

The Terps are not good. They went winless last season, losing 10 matches while drawing 2. They scored a whole 8 goals while conceding 29. Granted, the eastern side of the conference was generally stronger last season, but still, those aren’t great numbers. The Big Ten coaches aren’t confident that a whole lot will change for Maryland, picking them last in the preseason poll. Your cause for concern is that the last time the Illini and Terrapins met on the pitch, the turtle folks came away with a 6-2 win in what was the nadir of the 2019 for the Fighting Illini. This should be a win.

Good Result: Illinois runs past the Terps and crosses the finish line before taking a nap. (11-1-0)

Average Result: Illinois takes a nap right before the finish line but wakes up just in time to beat the Terps. (5-6-1)

Bad Result: Illinois goes comatose in the proverbial race, and the Terps trudge their way to an ugly win. (2-10-0)


The Western Chunk

Vs. Wisconsin | Friday, October 8 | 6 PM

At Minnesota | Thursday, October 14 | 6 PM

At Iowa | Sunday, October 17 | 1 PM

Vs. Nebraska | Thursday, October 21 | 7 PM

This also could’ve been called the Crunch Time Chunk. Three out of these four teams are likely going to right around Illinois in the standings, and the other might be up there, too. Last season, Wisconsin and Minnesota were the #1 and #3 teams in the western division of the Big Ten, and Iowa went on a run to win the conference tournament.

There’s a couple of question marks on each team in this chunk. Wisconsin returns their All-B1G midfielder Maia Cella but First Team All-B1G goalkeeper Jordyn Bloomer has moved on from Madison. The Gophers return 7 out of a possible 11 starters from last season, but second-team midfielder and not the Illinois tennis player Katie Duong transferred to Stanford while head coach Erin Chastain takes over the reins in the Twin Cities after 14 seasons at DePaul.

The Hawkeyes had the ultimate young team season this past spring. They started poorly and took their lumps, but after learning from their early mistakes and making a midseason goalie change (yes, Macie Enneking is back and only a sophomore), Iowa found some magic. Their Cinderella run started with an overtime win against the Illini and to the second round of the NCAAs, picking up a Big Ten tournament title somewhere along the way. The big question facing them is whether that run at the end of the season was a sign of things to come or just a flash in the pan, and although there was a touch of luck that helped them along the way, I’m leaning towards the former over the latter.

Nebraska…who knows? When I was previewing them for the Big Ten Tournament last season, I had no clue what to make of them. They didn’t really have an identity or standouts, and honestly, I would’ve preferred Illinois played them instead of a streaking Iowa. Granted, after a covid forfeit from the Huskers and what happened between Illinois and Iowa, that felt a bit too on the nose. Their best player from last year, Dakota Chan, returns for her senior season. Alongside her will be plenty of youth, as the roster contains 20 freshmen and sophomores as well as a couple transfers. Not much of an identity, plenty of youth, penultimate of the regular season…this one could be dangerous.

Good Results: I would take three out of four here and run. If I had to guess what the odd match out would be, I’d guess Wisconsin. (14-2-0)

Average Results: Split them squarely down the middle. Two wins (Nebraska and Minnesota probably), two losses (Iowa and Wisconsin). (7-8-1)

Bad Results: Beat Nebraska, lose the other 3. (3-13-0)


The Relatively Hard Mid-Atlantic Chunk

Vs. Rutgers | Sunday, October 24 | 1 PM

The schedule is literally saving the best for last. The Scarlet Knights are clearly in the top tier of Big Ten women’s soccer. They’re third in the conference in RPI currently and made a run to the second round of the NCAAs before bowing out to Clemson in penalty kicks. All-American forward Amirah Ali returns for her senior season along with Second-Team All-B1G goalkeeper Meagan McClelland and a phalanx of conference all-Freshman Team members, including forward Sam Kroeger, midfielder Becci Fluchel, and defender Emma Misal. They’re good and deep everywhere.

Good Result: Senior Day magic can overcome anything. This is a dub. (15-2-0)

Average Result: A loss, but hey, there was some fight. (7-9-1)

Bad Result: One final, horrible nail in the coffin to finish a terrible season. (3-14-0)


General Overview and Predictions

To be overly simplistic, this is a very strange schedule. In particular, there aren’t really any complete gimmes in the non-conference slate. There aren’t any low major teams on the schedule, and the easiest matchup (Toledo) is on the road. That’s very good for strength of schedule…

…because this is a very kind Big Ten slate. Big Ten women’s soccer scheduling is a bit like jazz: it’s all about the teams you don’t play. Usually, each team gets two “skips,” but for some reason, each team has three in the 2021 Fall season. They Illini are dodging Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. Now, the Spartans are likely just a hair better than Maryland but no more, so that’s an unfortunate skip, but Ohio State and Penn State were both tournament teams this past spring and will likely be gunning for the conference title. That’s 2 out of the 4 best teams that Illinois won’t have to play in the regular season. There’s two ways to look at it, and it really depends how good this Illinois team is. If Illinois is gunning for a spot in the conference (say, a good seed in the conference tournament or, dare I say, a regular season conference title) this is excellent news. If Illinois is trying to bolster their case for the NCAA tournament and need a decent strength of schedule, this is kind of a bummer.

Both of these viewpoints would likely require Illinois to take a step forward of some sort, and my confidence in that happening has slipped a little since I started writing this preview. If I didn’t make myself clear in my roster preview or if you didn’t want to wade all the way through all 4500+ words, I am fairly high on this season’s team. I mean, almost everyone is returning, so we know approximately where the floor is for this season, and with a few interesting additions, this team could be improved.

That confidence has waned a bit after the preseason. A shaky 1-0 win over Eastern Illinois and a dismal 4-0 blowout at the hands of Notre Dame has raised a few more questions, including but not limited to “Is the finishing going to be there?” and “Oh my god, where did the defense go?” Now, the exhibitions are the perfect time to try some wild lineups and get everyone some time on the pitch before settling into a rotation, so those matches aren’t likely reflective of a finished product. There are alarm bells going off. They’re relatively faint, but they do add a bit of anxiety about the upcoming season.

This is all a long-winded way of justifying adjusting my prediction from squarely between “good” and “average” to “leaning towards average.” This also takes the general goal going into the Big Ten Tournament from “we’re on the bubble and a win or two here would help solidify our case” to “we need to win this whole thing if we want to play in the NCAA Tournament.”

Final prediction: 9-7-1 (5-4-1). About 6th in the conference again, maybe win a game in the conference tournament, but once again be firmly on the wrong side of the bubble for the NCAA tournament.